…but I still like his poetry. I’m pleased to be teaching the “Romantics to 20th c.” survey this summer, and am starting, conventionally, with Blake. I even like his pompous prophetic stuff—some of it, anyway—the parts that I can make some kind of sense of. I’m bold enough to say that I don’t think Blake understood Milton nearly as well as he thought he did (famous quote: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” [The Marriage of Heaven and Hell]), and also that most people—including me—don’t understand Blake nearly as well as they think they do. Most of us have grasped the inspired bits that shine clearly, or pieces that seem clear, but perhaps have been taken out of context. And with Blake, there’s always more context.
When I teach this survey, we do tackle the Songs of Innocence and Experience and pick through The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (because “Without Contraries is no progression…”), but don’t even try to talk about his elaborate mystic symbolic systems, and so on. To a great extent, I see Blake’s writings as an experience in poetic sensation. That’s probably wrong, too.
Nevertheless, for example, consider how the poem which is now known as “Jerusalem” has become totally embedded in English cultural consciousness, apparently on the force of the imagery in the first and last two verses, and having been set to a stirring Elgar tune, even though it asks rhetorical questions to which the factual answer is (repeatedly) “No,” and otherwise is fairly empty of orthodox theological content. Nevertheless, it gets you every time (I like the way this particular vid connects the lyric with a variety of English people and settings without making it overly “romantic” or pastoral):
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among those dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor Shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.