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Illustrations to The Grave
Designed by Blake engraved by Schiavonetti
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".
Couch of Death
"...Sorrow linked them together, leaning on one another's necks alternately--like lilies, dropping tears in each other's bosom, they stood by the bed like reeds bending over a lake, when the evening drops trickle down. His voice was low as the whisperings of the woods when the wind is asleep, and the visions of Heaven unfold their visitation. Parting is hard, and death is terrible; I seem to walk through a deep valley, far from the light of day, alone and comfortless! The damps of death fall thick upon me! Horrors stare me in the face! I look behind, there is no returning; Death follows after me; I walk in regions of Death, where no tree is; without a lantern to direct my steps, without a staff to support me."
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; 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". Expressed negatively,
"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."