An English Visionary: The New Year Will Bring the 250th Anniversary of the Birth of William Blake. Philip Pullman Explains How the Writer and Artist Has Inspired His Work, and His Life
Pullman, Philip, New Statesman (1996)
In 1962 or thereabouts, when I was a young boy intoxicated by the sounds that poetry makes, I came across Allen Ginsberg's "Howl". I read it with astonishment and with an almost sensual delight. Having become drunk on "Howl", I moved on to other poems by Ginsberg, notably "Sunflower Sutra". Praising the beauty of the dusty old plant he sees in the wasteland of a San Francisco dock, with its
corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face, soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sunrays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried wire spider web ...
Ginsberg evokes an earlier poet who had celebrated the same flower:
I rushed up enchanted--it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake-my visions ...
I remain grateful to Ginsberg for several things, not least for having pointed the way to a greater poet. In my search for the sort of visionary intensity I'd found in "Howl" I followed his lead towards Blake, and bought the only edition I could afford, a little paperback selection edited by Ruthven Todd. I carried it everywhere; I have it still. It's on the desk beside me now, its paper yellowing and fragile, its cover as battered and grimy as that sunflower of Ginsberg's. I'd let many other and more costly books perish before failing to save that one. I read every word over and over and learned many of the poems by heart. Some of my first attempts to write were imitations of the great lyrics.
I am not a Blake scholar, and there are large stretches of the prophetic books that I have never read and probably never shall. But it was not scholarship that lured me on: it was intoxication. Blake's world is large and complex enough to provide endless matter for the delusions of the floridly paranoid as well as for academic study. He had the precious gift of expressing that complexity of thought in lines of unequalled force and limpid clarity:
O Rose, thou art sick! The invisible worm That flies in the night, In the howling storm, Has found out thy bed Of crimson joy, And his dark secret love Does thy life destroy.
It works as poetry always does, on the ear and in the mouth, before it lets itself be disentangled by the mind. There is some great poetry which works like that, but which when disentangled leaves little but a delicate fragrance: Tennyson's "The splendour falls on castle walls" is an example, and so is Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat". But the best of Blake's lyrics, when examined for their intellectual content, disclose tough, dense and sinewy argument, always surprising, always original, always disturbing:
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
The reason they work so well, the reason they are unforgettable, is that they have an incantatory power unlike anything else in English.
What I've come to cherish most of all in Blake, as I've grown older, is a quality that (to use his own term) I have to call prophetic. It is prophetic in two senses: it foretells, and, like the words of the Old Testament prophets, it warns, it carries a moral force. Furthermore, without being a Blakeian (except in the sense that I follow his own proclamation "I must create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's"), I admit that the words of Blake have joined a very small number of other texts as the best expression of the most important things I believe. If I didn't believe them, I wouldn't be able to work. How I came to believe them is another story, but I seem to have been feeling my way towards the principles set out below all my life. When I needed to find words for them, I found that Blake had already said what I wanted to say more clearly and powerfully than I ever could.