One Hit Wonder

Samuel Palmer, "Early Morning" (1825)

A Tree-Hugger Ahead of His Time

Palmer's sepias take us deep into the mysterious harmony of the natural world. Animals and humans are often present — note the hyperalert rabbit and half-hidden villagers in the resplendent "Early Morning" — and houses and barns crop up in the distance. But the main character is nature, in its wholeness and divineness, measured out in slightly stiff renderings of effulgently leafy bushes, glimmering birches, massive oaks and gnarly rocks, and in occasional moments of breathtaking ambiguity.

Posted by Jeff at March 19, 2006 11:45 AM

Author > Text > World

Though in one breath Yeats claims the William Blake was an author uniquely concerned with the future, in the next he claimed that the relationship between author, text, and world was not one of obligation. In his preface to the Modern Library edition of Blake’s works he edited, Yeats finds nothing troubling about Fredrick Tatham’s burning of Blake’s manuscripts after his death:

Blake himself would have felt little anger, for he had thought of burning his MS. himself, holding perhaps as Boehme held, and Swedenborg also, that there were many great things best unuttered within earshot of the world. Boehme held himself permitted to speak of much only among his “schoolfellows”; and Blake held there were listeners in other worlds than this. (xl-xli)

Yeats makes a bold move in severing the text from the world, given his corpus of politically activist poems. He holds a different perspective on philosopher/poets such as Percy Shelley. Yeats viewed Shelley as a philosopher who communicated through poetry; citing Mary Shelley’s observation that Shelley’s meanings “elude the ordinary reader by their abstraction and delicacy of distinction, but they are far from vague” (Essays 66). Further appropriating Mary Shelley’s words, Yeats assumes that “It was his [Shelley’s] design to write prose metaphysical essays on the nature of man which would have served to explain much of what is obscure in his poetry” (Essays 66). Indeed, Yeats himself seemed to follow Shelley’s design, providing copious prose to illuminate otherwise obscure poetry. The poet’s duties were not necessarily to the future of this world, but perhaps to some other. But the philosopher has a duty now for the future.


Posted by Jeff at February 7, 2005 1:09 AM


There have been men who loved the future like a mistress, and the future mixed her breath into their breath and shook her hair about them, and hid them from the understanding of their times. William Blake was one of these men, and if he spoke confusedly and obscurely it was because he spoke of things for whose speaking he could find no models in the world he knew. (W.B. Yeats, Essays, 111)

I do not agree with Yeats’s appraisal. David Erdman’s Prophet against Empire makes a compelling case the Blake was indeed moved by the politics of his age to model much of his poetry against it. The world he knew was a world of conflict, and part of that conflict was the contest between reason and observation. Writing not quite a century later, for Yeats, the two had collapsed together.

The reason, and by the reason he [Blake] meant deductions from the observations of the senses, binds us to mortality because it binds us to the senses, and divides us from each other by showing our clashing interests; but imagination divides us from mortality by the immortality of beauty, and binds us to each other by opening the secret doors of all hearts. (112)

What Yeats calls “imagination” was what Blake labeled “reason.” Observation and deduction, as typified by Newton, were not equivalent with reason. Reason, for Blake, is more closely allied what might be called “self-evidence.” Beauty is the self-evident concept used by Yeats and Eliot to “bind us to eternity” through imagination. The future is a cruel mistress, for beauty seems hardly self-evident to me. The cult of Life with its capital L, with its pleasures endlessly deferred, seems hardly more than a fairy tale used to overlook the engagement and embodiment represented by each person’s struggle to make sense of it all. And yet, we cannot live without this fairy tale:

No matter what we believe with our lips, we believe with our hearts that beautiful things, as Browning said in his one prose essay that was not in verse, have “lain burningly on the Divine hand,” and that when time has become to wither, the Divine hand will fall heavily on bad taste and vulgarity. (112)

Posted by Jeff at February 6, 2005 2:17 PM

The Yea Nay Creeping Jesus

MGK has pointed at an interesting reading that posits T.S. Eliot as the discursive founder of the hierarchy of data, information, and wisdom. I’m not so sure. The roots of this hierarchy are deep and twisted, and I think better explained by the rhetoric of science.

Alan Gross argues that there was a shift between the science of Descartes which valued reason over observation, and the science of Newton placed observation as the final arbiter of fact. Reason, in this context, seems allied with wisdom and belief rather than information. I don’t think contemporary readers see the true nuances of the split easily. William Blake plays on the duality of “reason” which functions as both a descriptor of belief and a descriptor of logic in this notebook fragment:

You dont believe I wont attempt to make ye
You are asleep I wont attempt to wake ye
Sleep on Sleep on while in your pleasant dreams
Of Reason you may drink of Lifes clear streams
Reason and Newton they are quite two things
For so the Swallow & the Sparrow sings
Reason says Miracle. Newton says Doubt
Aye thats the way to make all Nature out
Doubt Doubt & dont believe without experiment
That is the very thing that Jesus meant
When he said Only Believe Believe & try
Try Try & never mind the Reason why

Blake actually had high respect for Newton and the rational belief of Descartes. He thought answers and errors were to be found in both. The indications of this are well illustrated in his letter to an editor regarding the persecution of an astrologer:


Posted by Jeff at February 5, 2005 12:58 PM

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