The Columbia History of British Poetry

By Carl Woodring; James Shapiro | Go to book overview

Blake

I N 1783 a book called Poetical Sketches by W. B. was privately printed. The friend responsible adverted readers that its contents "were the production of untutored youth, commenced in his twelfth, and occasionally resumed by the author till his twentieth year; since which time, his talents having been wholly directed to the attainment of excellence in his profession, he has been deprived of the leisure requisite to such a revisal of these sheets, as might have rendered them less unfit to meet the public eye." With such an introduction, readers may have been expecting something like Stephen Duck, the Thresher Poet. If so, they must have been surprised to encounter a book of considerable sophistication, its poems reflecting an unusual range of the literary interests of the later eighteenth century: the Elizabethan lyric, Spenser's Hymnes, the Shakespearean history play, the ballads of Percy's Reliques, the Ossianic prose poem, and Gothic charnel house poetry. Yet these poems are by no means merely imitative. The opening addresses to the four seasons, perhaps the finest achievements in the volume, handle their central, Age-of-Sensibility personifications in such a way as to make them border on myth:

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!

An "untutored youth" who could so delicately combine the abstract and the sensuous was clearly headed for a remarkable poetic career. The

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