Experience into Words: Essays on Poetry

By D. W. Harding | Go to book overview

2
Experience and Symbol in Blake

ONE of the difficulties in coming to Blake's poetry is to know where to focus attention. So formidable a mass of exegesis and comment has accumulated during the last generation, and some of it so little less obscure than what the poet himself wrote, that on first approaching the poetry (or returning to it after a nonage acquaintance) the reader is liable to feel baffled. If we read only those short poems that seem fairly comprehensible, we may lose much of their meaning by ignoring their relation to the obviously esoteric writings, and if we struggle with the 'prophetic books' and the commentators' quasi-religious exegesis, we may well miss the distinctive enjoyment of Blake as a poet. How far to follow the journeyings of the commentators as they get more and more distant from the poem Blake wrote is a central problem for literary criticism. For those who could read there was an impressive and valuable quality in the poems long before their esoteric meanings were taken seriously. The Tyger was widely popular even among Blake's contemporaries in eighteenth- century London. Later on, Edward FitzGerald, Rossetti, and Swinburne were all responsive to the quality of his work as soon as they met it. An appreciation of Blake's power as an English poet, not as a preserve for initiates, must remain the nucleus to which we assimilate more or less of the remoter significance that his writing can be shown to possess.

The remoter significance has been studied--if not exhaustively, for the elaborations it invites seem inexhaustible--at least at stupefying length. An array of books devoted to his moral, religious, and political doctrines

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