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.

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.

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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)

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:

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William Blake— “Malevolence”

The watercolor above was executed by William Blake for a Reverend named Dr. Trussler, famous for such books as The Way to be Rich and Respectable, and the popular Luxury not Political Evil. Trussler sent instructions for the design, which Blake ignored— apologizing in a letter “I attempted every morning for a fortnight to follow your Dictate, but when I found my attempts were in vain, resolv’d to shew an independence that will please an Author better than slavishly following the track of another, however admirable that track may be.”

When Trussler refused his design, Blake fired back with perhaps one of the most venomous letters I’ve ever read. Anytime I get angry, I think of this letter. I’m sure it is not the way Blake would want to be remembered:

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Seduction by Aphorism

Seduction by Aphorism

Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.


Blake’s aphorism, one of the “proverbs of hell,” is seductive. Aphorisms are sexy. That is the cornerstone of their power. Interesting things occur when you apply pressure to these little nuggets. Thinking it over the last few days, I feel there are three possibilities:

  1. An aphorism can be “true”
  2. An aphorism can be “false”
  3. An aphorism may be non sequitur— neither true nor false.

However, an aphorism begs to be penetrated. This aphorism by Blake is in direct conflict with Occam’s Razor— the idea that nature prefers simplicity. Does it work that way? The evolutionary record of organisms moving toward increasing levels of complexity doesn’t support Occam. However, we are inexorably drawn to Occam’s principle—things ought to be simple. Blake’s aphorism is ironic on several levels.

First, there is the form—that of an aphorism. Aphorisms are not crooked, but rather a straight path directly to a thought—an improvement over a dense and complex diatribe. Second, there is the implication that genius is not an improvement —but a complication of what is already present. But what does Blake really mean by genius? His standard usage of “the poetic genius” to describe the presence of god in man points at a nuance of the word genius accessible to nineteenth century readers, but lost to most of us—genius is related to genie, or “spirit” in a metaphysical sense. Therefore, it seems, that what Blake is really getting at is that the road of the spirit, as contrasted with the road of improvement (or reason) is crooked.

Is this true, false, or null (non sequitur)? If true, why would its form so deeply contrast with its content—or, for that matter, why would it be a proverb of hell, sandwiched with other sayings of dubious merit?

I suspect that it is placed as it is to provoke thought. That’s what aphorisms do, they seduce us into thinking about commonplaces in order to evaluate their merit. This is the key. The writer of an aphorism does not confront us with what they think as much as they encourage us to think for ourselves.

Blake dutifully commented in the margins of Lavater’s Aphorisms, commenting “true” or “false” and sometimes offering rebuttals or amplifications. He loved aphorisms. I’m not so sure. I wonder if they make us fall prey to Occam’s Razor—suspecting that they “must be true” by virtue of their simplicity—when nearly all aphorisms ultimately reduce to the null quantity of a non sequitur.

Infernal Methods

Infernal Methods

Akma’s report from the digital genres conference rang bells. I wish I could have heard Trevor’s paper. Judith Butler would be proud—online identity as a performance. More than that though, I suddenly started thinking about giants.

The central character of William Blake’s Jerusalem is a giant named Albion. As the story begins, Albion has fallen and he can’t get up. Albion, in his fallen state, is spread all over the world. But that is only part of the problem. Blake is big on distinguishing the self (identity) from the selfhood (think of it like clothes). He uses this image in the closing plates of Milton— Milton must cast off his rotten garments of self-hood before he can stride forward. From a historical standpoint, this self-hood can be seen as Milton’s complicity with Cromwell, his horrible problems with women, etc.. The arresting image of a shedding of excess clothing is the penultimate moment of Milton— and the image of rotten layers clouding existence is reborn in Jerusalem through Blake’s allusion to the Covering Cherub in its final, apocalyptic scene. Los is working at the furnace, forging and dividing Albion’s body (the world) until he reveals the antichrist:

Thus was the Covering Cherub reveald majestic image
Of Selfhood, Body put off, the Antichrist accursed
Covered with precious stones, a Human Dragon terrible
And bright, stretched over Europe and Asia gorgeous
In three nights he devoured the rejected corse of death

His Head dark, deadly in its brain encloses a reflexion
Of Eden, all perverted; Egypt on the Gibon many tongued
And many mouthed: Ethiopia, Lybia, the Sea of Rephaim
Minute Particulars in slavery I behold among the brick-kilns
Disorganized. & there is Pharoh in his iron court:
And the Dragon of the River & the Furnaces of iron.

Jerusalem 89:9-19

Blake was obsessed with trying to figure out how to tell Christ from antichrist. For him, it was a matter of perspective. What many people thought holy, Blake thought to be a farce. The idea of a “body politic” obsessed him, though he was clearly concerned about the sort of clothes it would wear. The connections between people (in the above example, spoken of as “minute particulars”) and societies as a giant manifestation of people, was important. A society that enslaves its people cannot be a good thing, but the difference between market economics and slavery are slight, and dependant on where on the food chain you fall.

Albion covered the earth, obscured by the Covering Cherub. This, oddly, finally brings me to Chris Corrigan’s question regarding Blake’s infernal method.

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I woke up at 8am. I was falling through a dream. Falling doesn’t fill me with terror; I tend to enjoy the feeling of weightlessness. But I don’t enjoy waking up at 8am. I’m not a morning person at all. Because I am usually up until three or four a.m., I certainly didn’t feel rested. Something was bugging me.

I turned on the T.V. to a large statue of Saddam Hussein with a rope around his neck. Things were different today. Iraqis were pounding on the statue with a sledgehammer that the reporter kept calling an axe. I watched the spectacle for a couple of hours. A U.S. tow-tank pulled up and Iraqis piled on. It was certainly quite the public relations moment. I counted eight cameras watching one man trying to break a portrait of Hussein on the sidewalk nearby. Eventually, two other Iraqis joined in. Eight cameras and three civilians—the proportion just doesn’t seem right.

An American soldier, raised to the top on a crane arm (unlike the Iraqis who had been climbing up on a frayed rope), draped a flag over the face of Hussein. The reporter remarked that an audible gasp could be heard at the Pentagon. It was a curious turn of events. Footage of iconoclasm had been limited to the British rolling tanks over them in the south. This was different. The American flag, rubbed in the idol’s face, obscured it. A moment later, an Iraqi flag was hauled up and tied like a kerchief around the statue’s neck, and left to linger for a while before they hauled the statue down. It hung for a moment, and didn’t fall, at the edge of the pedestal. It was a manufactured drama.

It made me think of America by William Blake— Blake’s poem begins with a rape.

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