A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Twenty-three
BLAKE

IT would be difficult to conceive a greater and more illuminating contrast than that between the poetry of Robert Burns and the poetry of William Blake ( 1757-1827). If Burns is to be reckoned a contributor to the romantic revival it must be done by giving to that phrase a wider and vaguer significance than hitherto attaches to it, for Burns's poetry, as has been said, is essentially unromantic, if we think of romantic in terms of what is most significant in the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Shelley, and Keats. Addison did not go altogether astray when he chose to compare a simple popular ballad, Chevy Chase, with the Aeneid in order to illustrate his ideal, and that of the neo-classical school generally, of a poetry based on good sense, truth to Nature, understanding by Nature what seemed to them most remote from the "wit" of the so-called "metaphysical poets" from Donne to Cowley. Romantic poetry was no revival of this witty, fantastic poetry, though it made gradually possible a juster view of what there was in that poetry over and above wit and overstrained fancy. But romantic poetry was a poetry into which the impassioned imagination entered as a transfiguring, a modifying, in its greatest products a creative factor, giving us Nature as interpreted by Wordsworth, or a past that in great measure never had been a present, whether the Middle Ages or the "glory that was Greece," or the future as dreamed of by Shelley.

Of all this there is no vestige in Burns, whereas William Blake might be reckoned the extreme representative of the effort to discover and interpret the truth of things not by the understanding, by Addison's "good sense," but through and by the imagination, the vehicle, as Blake claimed, of poetic and prophetic inspiration: "All art is inspiration. When Michael Angelo or Raphael or Mr. Flaxman does any of his fine things, he does them in the spirit"-- in which there is much truth, if it was Blake's error to believe

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