ON THE NATURE OF POETIC SYMBOLISM
`A SYMBOL', says the dictionary, is `something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else; especially a material object representing something immaterial or abstract, as a being, idea, quality, or condition; a representative or typical figure, sign, or token.'
While a good deal has been written on the abstract in Blake, and on those philosophical concepts that the symbolism represents, very little has been said in direct criticism of the symbolism itself. And since the symbolism gives poetic reality to Blake's thought, very little has been said in criticism of Blake's poetry. We have had excellent commentaries on Blake as a mystic, or a prophet, or a psychological misfit, or a rebel; but not one, as far as I know, that treats this major English poet unreservedly as such. And so it seemed worth while to read Blake's poetry, setting other things aside, as I would read Keats or Chaucer, and to criticize the poems as poems. I was prepared for symbolic chaos--or disorder at the best--and for `Romantic vagueness'. Instead I found intense control, a symmetry of symbols interrelated and ordered, and writing dramatically direct in its attack. There was no need to appeal to metaphysics for comprehension. The poems did not merely convey philosophy or prophecy, but realized their own meaning; and intrinsic in this meaning, more vital than all else, was the poetic symbolism: not the mythology, among which Blake shifted uneasily at times, but the symbolism, which he directed unerringly.
Going back to the dictionary, we find that a parenthesis is added which needs emphasizing: the symbol denotes 'something else' `not by exact resemblance, but by vague suggestion, or by accidental or conventional relation'. Further to this, in poetry at least, a symbol may be an action, or things involved in an action, as well as simply the things themselves. The lack of exact resemblance, and this kinetic quality, are closely linked with poetic as against exegetical symbolism. Indeed, it is not going too far to say that they are