A Song of Innocence and of Experience: Rewriting Blake in Brodkey's "Piping Down the Valleys Wild." (William Blake, Harold Brodkey)
Bidney, Martin, Studies in Short Fiction
Harold Brodkey's book of short stories, First Love and Other Sorrows, shows his remarkable affinity with first generation Romantic poets. "The State of Grace," which opens the volume, is an ironic refashioning of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" into a psychologically probing analysis of unconsciously hypocritical narcissism (Bidney, "Unreliable Modern 'Mariner'"). As I would like to show now, the book's penultimate tale, "Piping Down the Valleys Wild" (not yet analyzed in the secondary literature, so far as I can find) is a refreshing Romantic contrast: here Brodkey reshapes the lyric legacy of William Blake into a sophisticated study of innocence maintained not only in the face of, but precisely because of, the insights born of hard-won experience. "Piping down the valleys wild" is the first line of the poem "Introduction," which opens Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. Brodkey allusively signals that in this tale he will offer us an illustrative examination of both Blakean contrary states.
"Without Contraries is no progression," says Blake in Plate 5 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Brodkey, too, tells the story of a sometimes contrarious but always progressing marriage, the occasionally conflicted but still healthily loving union of Laura and Martin. "Opposition," adds Blake in another bold paradox, "is true Friendship" (MHH 20).(1) Brodkey's tale similarly features an exemplary friendship, shown convincingly in the enjoyable conversational give-and-take or friendly opposition between Stu and Martin. The union of innocence and its contrary, experiential insight, is also clearly shown - in the rewarding exchanges between three-year-old Faith and the adults around her: her parents (Laura, Martin) and their friend Stu, whom she calls "Uncle."
The pleasant but lively summer evening that these four people enjoy in Brodkey's tale is no simplistic idyll: indeed, it begins with a quarrel, and no agreement is reached on the object of contention - a delft bowl Laura has bought for an ashtray, but which Martin feels they can hardly afford. Yet all of Brodkey's main characters in this story - Laura, Martin, Stu, and even the child Faith - have mastered one essential art: they know how to agree to disagree. Brodkey's group portrait of the four of them constitutes a truly Blakean "fourfold vision" ("With Happiness . . ." 84) of friendship thriving in kindly contrariety.
"Piping Down the Valleys Wild" is, then, a story about contrarieties. The events during the evening the four people spend together are structured so that the Blakean allusions these little episodes suggest will offer a quick tour, in sequence, of representative Songs of Innocence. Beginning with material reworked from "Introduction," Brodkey goes next, in Blakean order, to "The Ecchoing Green," "Nurse's Song," and finally "A Dream." (I suspect also a pair of allusions to "The Little Boy Lost" and "The Little Boy Found" - placed somewhat out of sequence with Blake's ordering.) But we also find sprinkled throughout the brief tale references to lyrics of a contrasting type - "A Divine Image" (a poem included only in one late copy of Songs of Experience), "Mock on Mock on Voltaire Rousseau," "Riches," "Eternity," and "He Who Binds to Himself a Joy" (notebook verses of Blake's) - as well as allusions to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. These are materials expressive of Blakean insights regarding, and won through, "experience."
Brodkey, I am suggesting, alludes freely in his story to Blakean visions of both innocence and experience. But he tends to avoid citing lyrics of the "London" type, deeply despairing poems about the miseries produced in society when Reason and Energy seek to destroy each other. For his goal in "Piping Down the Valleys Wild" is to offer a portrait of a marriage, a friendship, a family, that exemplify the harmonious union of contrasts in an atmosphere of love and mutual respect. …