I can't remember which poem it was, if I ever knew. Perhaps it was "Spring": Sound the Flute! Now it's mute. Birds delight Day and Night. Nightingale In the dale Lark in Sky Merrily, Merrily, Merrily to welcome in the Year . . .
A friend had heard it or read it in isolation, out of context, and dismissed it as childish, inconsequential: "A sort of nursery rhyme." It was banal, with no apparent depth or deeper meaning. "And then I discovered to my horror it was a poem by Blake."
Blake, whose "Songs of Innocence," cannot be understood each in isolation, but must be read in one another's light, and then read collectively in the light of their counterpart, the "Songs of Experience." In the light of his work as a whole, and finally of his life itself, can one possibly evaluate one of his works (or anyone's) in isolation?
On the other hand, why dismiss the poem even if it was the work of a child, or written for children? After all, as Blake himself says in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell":
If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.
The freshness and innocence of a child's vision may appear, to an adult (or adulterated) view, as banality. But if the fool, as Blake elsewhere says, were to persist in his folly he would become wise. Could it be that the canons of literary judgment have become tarnished, corroded with sophistication, so that in our search to define the eternal both in creation and criticism, we effectively screen it out? It is certain that some of Blake's poetry, taken in isolation, appears graceless, shallow. Only when it is read in the light of the obvious grace and depth of other Blakeian works is one forced to think again, to realize that in his stubborn and doggedly anti-conventional pursuit of folly, Blake had indeed achieved wisdome. Or rather that is some unexplained way he had preserved his original folly from being corrupted by the world's conventional wisdom: and in so doing discovered the folly to be wisdom itself, the wisdom of innocence.m
It is Blake's genius that the clarity, the piercing honesty of his vision, enables him to get away with what, in other poets, would be denounced as mere naivete. In his poetry no less than in his engravings this aggressively straightforward mystic is obsessed with the necessity of scything through anything that would obstruct that world beyond the tangled mesh of everyday appearance.
How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?
The normal process of poetic production involves perhaps as much polish as inspiration. Blake believes, or rather knows,m that the raw material of his vision shines brightly enough if only it can be expressed directly.
Why wilt thou Examine every little fibre of my soul,
Spreading them out before the sun like stalks of flax to dry?
His loathing of the aridity of intellect divorced from intuition and immagination is well known. Perhaps it is this that impels him to attempt to represent his insight with as little verbal article as possible.
Language, even the language of poetry, is the language of materiality. Words represent a world of limitation, a word that can be measured, quantified. But if language is the mirror of materiality, Blake uses it to mirror the essential instability and corruption of that world which we take for normal. O Rose, thou art sick! The invisible worm The flies in the night, In the howling storm, Has found out they bed Of crimson joy: And his dark secret love Does thy life destroy.
The image of the rose upon the cross of time is familiar from Yeats: the spatio-temporal world of quantity obliterates the world of qualitym -- or tries to. Blake's concern is to represent this process of attempted destruction and, in so doing, in some measure heal it.
And perhaps it is in the apparent lack of success of some of his poems that their true success lies. Perhaps it is the very failurem of language to express adequately the poet's insight, which expresses better than anything else what he is concerned so desperately to put across: that we see through a glass darkly, that our words mirror a world that is itself a tarnished mirror of eternity.