Tag Archive: Poetic Genius


“Truth can never be told so as to be understood”

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.”

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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.

Freedom through Death and Rebirth

In response to kathcal and singerofinnocence,

I agree that there are strong connections between Milton and slave spirituals, and especially the link to Blake’s disapproval of the mental enslavement by Urizen’s reason. When re-reading this plate, I was reminded of part of a poem by the Muslim mystic poet, Rumi, in which the speaker invokes the voice of G-d:

I would love to kiss you.

The price of kissing is your life.

Now my loving is running toward my life shouting,

What a bargain, let’s buy it.

Both in Rumi’s poem and Blake’s work, the idea of abandoning life on earth in order to connect with G-d is the only way for a person to achieve the level of oneness they desire. Without death, and the self-annihilation of the current state of existence, mankind will be deprived of the of the greater significance and connection for which they yearn, forever trapped in their own “Selfhood.”

One aspect of the picture on page 167 that I also noticed was the shape of the muscles depicted on Milton’s back as he pushes against Urizen. There seems to be a small, angular opening in his lower back that reminded me of the vaginal imagery we discussed in earlier works that is a symbol for Christ’s wound, as well as a path through which one can experience the poetic genius. Because of this, Blake perpetuates the link between self-annihilation and rebirth that ultimately brings man closer to Christ through an exertion of poetic genius and uninhibited sexuality.

The Nightmare of Female Power

Enitharmon’s “female dream” is not the first mention of the goddess’s eighteen-hundred-year reign on the earth: a few stanzas previously, Enitharmon expresses her intent to have “dominion” over “the human race”: “Who shall I call? Who shall I send? / That Woman, lovely Woman! May have dominion?” (Plate 8, line 3; Plate 8, line 5; Plate 8, lines 2-3) Her plan to dominate mankind is clearly premeditated and involves summoning two of her sons, as well as their nameless female counterparts, to carry out her plot on the earth. A definite method of dominance exists in the “spread[ing] of nets in every secret path” by “the little female”: from their youth, women are to serve as the forbidden objects of desire by men, for Enitharmon’s plan of conquest rightly perceives that men are easily ensnared by sexual attraction that is denied consummation (Plate 8, line 9; Plate 8, line 8). For in Blake’s worldview, suppressed desire (particularly sexual desire) is the ultimate means by which humanity’s imaginative link to the divine is controlled and repressed.

Enitharmon’s plan is evidently successful, for an eighteen-hundred-year period passes in which “Man was a Dream” (Plate 12, line 2). The end of this tyrannical period is marked by Orc’s successful bid for revolution on the earth, and thus we may equate man with freedom of desire and woman with desire’s repression. Openness and liberty in desire are termed a “Dream” because they exist only in the imagination during the period in which false chastity, counterfeit modesty, and the tenet that “Woman’s love is Sin” reign over humanity (Plate 8, line 5). According to Blake, it is this imagination, associated with the figure of Orc, that eventually overcomes woman’s rule and allows for the freedoms of desiring, creating, and acting that, to Blake, are the ultimate marks of mankind’s “poetic genius.”

The “female dream,” then, is the antithesis of Man’s Dream: it represents the exploitation and control of desire perpetuated by Enitharmon’s system. Unlike the male “Dream,” the female “dream” is not capitalized and is thus symbolic of systematic, repressive traits and actions associated with created society rather than the natural, creative elements that exist because of the divine. It is not a positive, imaginative state of mind like that Blake advocates; rather, it is the hazy existence under authority that is much like the literal dreams one has during sleep. Such dreams are without meaning and, unlike the Dreams produced by desire, contain no implications for one’s mortal or immortal life. Clearly life under the influence of the female dream is, according to the poem, a fuzzy and unreal experience in which the manipulative power of women dominates. Freedom occurs when woman’s authority is revoked and the Dream of man is restored: in this sense “Europe a Prophecy” is a strikingly anti-feminist vision of how the world should look.

The Epic War

Los and Orc serve to be an interesting combination for Blake’s prophecy. Los being a representation of the Creative Poetic Genius and Orc serving as Revolution in the Material World work together to spread the spirit of revolution, eternalized by the Poetic Genius, throughout the “vineyards of red France” (106). It is Blake’s, taking the form of the Blacksmith Los, to have revolution continue and not be constrained as Orc has been bound by Enitharmon–his mother–for most of the work.

Orc–the son–serves to be a means for Los–the father–so that people can access the Poetic Genius. For Blake’s ideal revolution, one that does not merely deteriorate as it progresses and is then restrained by a new and corruptible system, Los and Orc must be together. The pair represent Blake’s hope of an ideal revolution in his work, or at least how he hopes the revolution will play out. Their portrayal as warriors fighting an epic battle is Blake’s effort to symbolically demonstrate what he is doing in his work–waging war with the corrupted system.

Blake wishes to overturn the corrupted system in France with the spirit of revolution, Orc, and wishes to diminish any chance of the system returning through the Poetic Genius, Los. However, one issue comes to mind: Europe was published right in the beginning of the French Revolution–1794–so Blake obviously sees the potential of the Revolution; my question though: is it possible that Blake could foresee the imminent deterioration of the Revolution in favor of a new system? Or was he fully on board with the French Revolution being the spiritual revolution that he hoped for? The reason I ask is that Blake ends his prophecy with the beginning of the war cry of Los, but does not seek to go further. This is why I ask if Blake is having second thoughts–any thoughts on the matter?

Blake Dictionary p.246: LOS is Poetry, the expression in this world of the Creative Imagination.

Blake Dictionary p.309: ORC is Revolution in the material world.

The father-son relationship of Los and Orc symbolizes an important causation. Los is Poetry and imagination, which is the Poetic Genius. By experiencing and expressing Poetic Genius, people will see beyond the contraries and recognize the need of a revolution in the material world. Thus, just like the father-son relationship, poetry and imagination are forms to achieve Revolution.

However, Los also has to prepare for the epic war because the revolution brought by Orc is not enough. Los, the father, symbolizes the progression beyond Orc. The revolution brought by Orc is represented as the French Revolution: “But terrible Orc, when he beheld the morning in the east, Shot from the heights of Enitharmon; And in the vineyards of red France appear’d the light of his fury” (106). The French Revolution, though achieved a substantial amount of overthrowing, is never radical enough for Blake. It was still bounded by reason and did not free the human race ultimately. Los represents the revolution brought by Poetic Genius, which leads to infinite and the New Jerusalem. So the battle between Los and Orc is necessary. This cosmic battle will result in the victory of Los and the apocalypse, the coming of Christ and the New Jerusalem.

Blake and Wonderland

Rifle through Songs of Innocence and you’ll discern both a literary and artistic analog in the well-known children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. Though written some tens of years apart, the former in 1785 and the latter in 1865, one encounters undeniable parallels in both works. These similarities vary from the more obvious, such as each texts’ accompaniment by engraved fascimiles or illustrations—the inclusion of which is necessary in making the work comprehensible and less cryptic—to the more complex, entering the commentative realm. Carroll, based on his incorporation of the imaginative, particular thematic elements, and critical analysis and allegory, is unarguably a contemporary of William Blake and, by Blakean definition, an exhibitor of Poetic Genius. Carroll evidently turned to Blake as a source of inspiration and possibly even reinforcement as he embarked on a seemingly controversial and unorthodox literary and artistic journey, weaving the vividly eccentric, or at least seemingly so, account of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

 

Revolution or Continual Renewal?

While Blake is obviously no proponent of empire or hierarchical systems of government, affixing the word “revolution” to his political ideology could be an erroneous construction. The definition of revolution states the following: “A forcible overthrow of a government or social order for a new system.” Though he admires the ideals of the French and American revolutions, Blake does not envision a satisfactory replacement for these tyrannical systems–instead, he pushes for a continuous state of revolution. As someone mentioned in class, even anarchy would not satisfy Blake’s political desires because by being a lack of a system, it itself becomes a system. Tying these ideas back to the tenets of the Poetic Genius, Blake might imagine a society in revolution as the supreme expression of imagination and individualism, whether seen through the freedom to act without laws or being able to create and destroy anything at will. Because such a system is nearly unimaginable for eighteenth-century people (even still for today’s population), Blake would have become an outcast for expressing his ideas forthrightly, so by asserting suggestive hints at such a system through convoluted documents and images, he proposed his radical ideas for continuous revolutionary renewal in such a way that only the most interested and creative people could understand his idea for a new society (or lack thereof).

This frontispiece by Wale exemplifies many of the discernible themes in Blake’s Songs of Experience. Blake begins his Songs with the voice of the Bard–a voice that serves as a seeming contrary to that of the piper, the speaker in Songs of Innocence. A bard, though more generally defined as a reciting poet, also has more traditional roots in the Scottish Gaelic tradition that was romanticized by Sir Walter Scott. This association immediately called to mind Wale’s frontispiece and, when considered more closely, even more similarities arose.

This engraving marked a dual alteration in the literary and authorial culture during the mid-eighteenth century. Firstly, it symbolized the necessary transition from aural to written work. Without this transition, the record of poetry from that time would have been lost. By segueing from mere song to engraving, the work of poets was enabled to endure, emphatically emphasized and legitimatized by the Latin phrase “durat opus vatum.” Secondly, it suggests the re-imagination of poetry as the ballad form and themes of chivalric romance were recovered and remade in original forms.

As Blake’s work “The Tyger” suggests, Blake valorized natural, organic elements by referencing “distant deeps, skies….forests of the night.” In a self-referential fashion, Blake reveals the paradox of utilizing the Poetic Genius to conjure images and poetic stanzas while constricting them to a fixed frame through the mechanized process of engraving. Such a paradox is visually and metaphorically manifested in his engraving of a tiger that takes on the appearance of a docile, domestic feline. Wale’s frontispiece vignette similarly manifests contraries and paradoxes with its traditional Gaelic images coalesced with Gothic iconography, classical components, and allusions to the Enlightenment period. The harp, both a classical and Gaelic image, seems to be surrendering to a new, budding tradition, as symbolized by the growing tree. Coupled together, these images serve as a metaphor for the transition from the aural tradition of song. The Gothic arches are a testament to Romantic culture as is the glorification of nature espoused by the upright, central tree. The Latin phrase represents intellect and the act of logically translating it to an understood language recalls the Enlightment’s emphasis on reasoning. (This component of the frontispiece would have been derided by Blake as a product of Urizen and institutionalization.) Thus, the work of Blake and Wale can be deemed “sister works” questioning the ability of an artist to truly express his Poetic Genius.

Poetic Genius and Religion

Blake’s Philosophy of Art is impossible to seperate from his philosophy on religion. We know from our reading thus far that the poetic genius is a key part of the artistic process for Blake. But it is difficult for us to understand exactly what this genius entails. I don’t propose to be able to answer that question, but I do think that any full answer is going to contain some element of the divine. Blake has said how visions are of infinite importance to the artist. Because the visions are so critical, their source must be equally critical to our lives. I believe that the only possible source that would hold that level of importance to Blake is the divine. There must be some overlap between poetic genius and God.