Thursday, December 11, 2014

Style 4

      The notebook poem which begins, "My Spectre around me night and day" merits study as an approach to understanding the use of Blake's symbolism to express his deepest feelings about life. I quote the climax of it. In the first verse Blake means by 'love' very much what Paul in Romans 8 meant by 'flesh'. In the second, without using the word, he expresses in the fullest possible way what divine love meant to him:
    Let us agree to give up Love,
    And root up the infernal grove;
    Then shall we return & see
    The worlds of happy Eternity.

    & Throughout all Eternity
    I forgive you, you forgive me.
    As our dear Redeemer said:
    This the Wine & this the Bread.
(from Broken Love) As these lines suggest, Blake had a strong sense of reticence about using the sacred words in the sacred sense, perhaps because he had so exhaustively explored their profane senses. Nevertheless in the poem "William Bond" from the Pickering Manuscript he gave an exquisite portrait of romantic love, purified of fallenness and filled with the divine. Read the last two verses:
       I thought Love liv'd in the hot sun shine,
But O, he lives in the Moony light!
I thought to find Love in the heat of day,
But sweet Love is the Comforter of Night.
       Seek Love in the Pity of others' Woe,
In the gentle relief of another's care,
In the darkness of night & the winter's snow,
In the naked & outcast, Seek Love there!

       If its visions of love express the quality of a culture, so also does the face which it presents to death. Our society expends enormous sums on the professional removal of all evidence of death from our consciousness, even in the teeth of the stark reality. Ernest Becker, in The Denial of Death, showed the ubiquity of this impulse in American culture. His title, a poetic term, can just as easily mean one thing as the other. Like all symbols of value we encounter good denials of death and bad ones.
       The poetry of Walt Whitman expresses one of the best. Like our poet Whitman was so sure of Eternity that the end of natural life had no terrors for him. He gained first hand experience with death as a hospital volunteer during the Civil War. Exceptionally memorable is his address to a dying soldier, "I don't commiserate, I congratulate you". Here is the exact opposite of the forms of denial most often exercised by the mortician, who simply does all he can to encourage us not to think about it.
       In one of his earliest writings Blake explored the meaning of death to an ordinary young man and his loved ones. The Couch of Death (Erdman 441) voices the common fears of humanity but moves to the faithful reality that Blake possessed throughout his days, ending "and the youth breathes out his soul with joy into eternity".
       Blake's idealism found expression in the simple inversion of death, an idea that goes back as far as Heraclitus, who speaking of the Eternals said, "we live their death, and we die their life". The thought comes down to us through Euripides, Plato, and many others as late as Thomas Wolfe.
Most often when Blake speaks of " Death Eternal" he expresses the viewpoint of the Eternals, what  they meant by the term "this mortal life". Three times in Plate 14 of Milton the poet in Heaven, having heard the "Bard's Song" about Satan and recognizing Satan as his own Self- hood, says, "I go to Eternal Death!". He clearly means to return to this world, reenacting the kenosis (self emptying) of Christ.
       Otherwise Blake used the word 'death' more straightforwardly than he had used 'love' and in two general senses. In fairly common parlance death is the opposite of the creative. Speaking of the Law in 'Jerusalem' the Divine Voice says:
    "No individual can keep these Laws, for they are death to every energy of man and forbid the springs of life."
       If you read Paul's epistles, you will discover that he used 'death' in the same ways. For example "And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2:1). Paul is always reminding the Christian that he participates in the death and resurrection of Christ.
       Secondly, Blake used 'death' in its most proper sense as the end of mortal life, but whenever he touched this subject, he always denied the materialistic viewpoint that death is the end. A clear example comes in Gates of Paradise, a short synoptic and pictorial description of Blake's myth of life:
    " But when once I did descry The Immortal Man that cannot Die, Thro' evening shades I haste away To close the Labours of my Day."
       Though he lived intensely, the love of the Ideal and his life long visions of Eternity led Blake to yearn for the Beyond and to depreciate material existence. Like the apostle Paul he had a "desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better". Blake made a deliberate attempt through the aid of the doctrine of correspondences to live each moment of earthly life in the eternal realm, "to see a World in a Grain of Sand". 
    "I assert for My Self that I do not behold the outward Creation & that to me it is hindrance & not Action; it is as the Dirt upon my feet, No part of Me."
And as stated in CHAPTER ONE he died with a song of praise on his lips. His life and all his art provide a convincing testimony for the reality of the Beyond. It was really Death that was "Dirt upon his feet".
       Finally Blake used 'death' in the uniquely Christian context of self giving. At the end of 'Jerusalem' Jesus explains to Albion the meaning of his own death and its significance as a universal form of relationship:
           ...Fear not Albion: unless I die thou canst not live;
    But if I die I shall arise again & thou with me.
    This is Friendship & Brotherhood: without it Man is Not. ...
    ....Wouldest thou love one who never died
    For thee, or ever die for one who had not died for thee?
    And if God dieth not for Man & giveth not himself
    Eternally for Man, Man could not exist; for Man is Love
    As God is Love; every kindness to another is a little Death In the Divine Image, nor can Man exist but by Brotherhood.
       These explorations of 'love' and 'death' may help the reader to grasp some of the poetic meanings attached to Blake's other terms of value, words like heaven and hell, good and evil, truth and error. Always watch for irony, for the other point of view, the reverse side of the coin. In such ways Blake continually provokes the intellect. He delights the person who enjoys an intellectual challenge--and frustrates others. He intimated as much in a letter to Dr. Trusler, who likely belonged to the second category:
    " But you ought to know that What is Grand is necessarily
    obscure to Weak men. That which can be made Explicit to
    the Idiot is not worth my care. The wisest of the Ancients
    consider'd what is not too Explicit as the fittest for
    Instruction, because it rouzes the faculties to act. I
    name Moses, Solomon, Esop, Homer, Plato."
So much for Blake's use of words; the Word now engages our attention. Conventional Christian thought, following the Prologue of John, identifies the Word or Logos with the Eternal Christ, incarnated by Jesus. In addition we have the Written Word, the Bible, the record of God's dealings with Man. Broadening this somewhat we get the Living Word, the Spirit of the first two falling upon the heart of the believer. This approximates the meaning of the Word for Blake. Finally, in his eternal vision the Word was not confined to the content of the Bible, but included all of God's statements to the world.
The Word was a Man who contained among his parts everything in the universe. The artist proclaims the Word, and Blake perceived it as successively recreated by each generation. He understood the Bible in this way as a series of recreations of the Word. So also was the work of Origen, Plotinus, Paracelsus, Boehme, Swedenborg, all recreators of the Word.
Blake rightly perceived Milton's poetry, especially his epic poem, 'Paradise Lost', as the definitive English recreation of the Word, and he hoped to do for later generations what Milton had done for earlier ones. All of the artists named, and of course innumerable others, had dealt extensively with the Bible, interpreting it, commenting upon it, correcting it, adding to it. Lacking the usual superstitious awe of the Bible Blake saw all of these as legitimate activities and indeed as the appropriate vocation of every artist; in that way man becomes One and Christ is formed.

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