Infinity on the Anvil: A Critical Study of Blake's Poetry

By Stanley Gardner | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER I
THE BEGINNINGS IN INNOCENCE

THERE is in Blake's poetry a peculiarity, 'the peculiarity of all great poetry':

. . . a peculiar honesty, which, in a world too frightened to be honest, is peculiarly terrifying. It is an honesty against which the whole world conspires, because it is unpleasant. Blake's poetry has the unpleasantness of great poetry. Nothing that can be called morbid or abnormal or perverse, none of the things which exemplify the sickness of an epoch or a fashion, have this quality; only those things which, by some extraordinary labour of simplification, exhibit the essential sickness or strength of the human soul.

( T. S. ELIOT, The Sacred Wood, repr. 1934, p. 151.)

'An extraordinary labour of simplification'; it would be difficult to find another phrase which would summarize Blake's work with such insight. It is also 'terrifying', and has 'the unpleasantness of great poetry'. Already in the Poetical Sketches, 'the production', as the Rev. Henry Mathew put it in the original Preface, 'of untutored youth', we can trace associations between idea and corporeity, which are the 'terrifying' symbolism in its nascent form. There is also a hint of Blake's unpleasantly searching directness in the complete reconciliation of object and action, that goes so far beyond the polite personifications of his contemporaries. Indeed, about the only thing to remind us of these contemporaries is the occasionally portentous tone of the 'untutored youth's' address. He is still in the presence of the Muse when he apostrophizes Spring:

O thou with dewy locks, who lookest down
Thro' the clear windows of the morning, turn
Thine angel eyes upon our western isle,
Which in full choir hails thy approach, O Spring!

The point of interest about the poem is the air of sanctity which pervades it. Blake has not yet achieved the inviolable Innocence of the Songs of Innocence; but already this 'saintliness'--'angel eyes', 'full choir', 'holy feet'--is confined to the poem To Spring; none of the poems on the other seasons has it. And Spring is the invariable season in the Songs of Innocence.

But the sanctity of To Spring contrasts markedly in many ways with the natural, unassumed Innocence of the Songs of Innocence.

-15-

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