The Point Is to Change It: Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present

By Jerome McGann | Go to book overview

2
Truth in the Body of Falsehood

At the time Wordsworth published his manifesto against the artifices of eighteenth-century verse—his call for a poetry that would reflect the “language really used by men”—William Blake was already committed to a different set of proposals. Instead of (the artifice of) common speech, Blake invoked the artifice of eternity. He began to take dictation from other worlds, setting down words and sentences that were obscure and unfamiliar, as materially obdurate as the medium in which Blake chose to embody his work:

Rintrah roars and shakes his fires in the burden’d air.…
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Part of the shock that such poetry still produces comes from its commitment to what the eighteenth century called “the language of Adam.” Because the word “Rintrah” is angelic, this verse declares itself inexplicable in any but its own terms. In this, the opening line of one of the most important English poems of the eighteenth century, we do not confront a language really used by men. Rather, we attend to a statement “dictated” from another world and declaring that “eternity is in love with the productions of time.” It is one of those “sentences” that later, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake said were “now perceived by the minds of men, & read by them on earth” for the first time.

When Clark Coolidge wrote in his Notebooks that “there are forms/ in words for what is not known” and that “poetry is always using words you don’t know” he attaches himself to a tradition that has kept its dis-

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