Essay: William Blake as a Visionary Poet Depicted in Some of His Poems
In the Songs of Experience, he deals with the ugliness of life. His mystical faculty henceforth found a more satisfying expression in decorative designs. He became actively concerned with the art of illustration, and he enriched a number of his works in this way including his own prophetic books. Blake also claimed that the spirit of his dead brother used to come to him in visions and prompted his writings as well as his illustrations. Of many of his poems he said that they were “dictated” to him by spirits. In this most literal sense he held that “inspiration” could come to the aid of a poet. When he was inspired he made use of his Imagination or Divine Vision. Blake had, indeed, a strong hold upon the spiritual world. He was a great believer in the imaginative faculty. He admired William Law (1686-1761: author of religious and mystical works) and Charles Wesley (1707-1788: author of a number of hymns) and was himself, as a young man, a follower of Swedenborg (1688-1772: Swedish philosopher, scientist, and mystic who claimed to have seen many visions). He said, for instance, “One power alone makes a poet: Imagination, the Divine Vision.” For Blake, God and the imagination are one; that is, God is the creative and spiritual power in man, and apart from man the idea of God has no meaning.
As a visionary poet, Blake left his mark on both painting and literature. He is ever looking behind the visible frame of things, for the glories and terrors of the world of spirit, with the eyes of one who cannot help dreaming dreams and seeing visions. The visionary in him sometimes overpowers the artist. A wild confusion of imagery then often blurs (haze) his works, whether as an engraver or poet. But if at times it obscures his clarity and simplicity, it gives a phantom touch of extraordinary subtlety, and too much of his work exquisite beauty.
Blake’s mysticism is deep-rooted in the practical side of his nature, and touches the problems of life. The Songs of Experience illustrates this quality of Blake’s mysticism more forcefully. Introduction to the Songs of Experience contains the prophetic Bard’s call to Earth to arise and embark upon a new era in her life but Earth’s Answer leaves no doubt in our minds regarding Blake’s pessimism as regards the present of mankind. Earth speaks of the cruelty of Jehovah or Urizen (“Starry Jealousy”) and her being in chains. She speaks especially of the restraints of the sexual nature of human beings. In other words, this poem depicts the imprisoning, the hindering, and the restrictive influences in life. Both these poems, Introduction and Earth’s Answer, were written in the form of visions, and the first is more strikingly mystical because of its references to the “Holy Word” and “Christ” or “God” walking among the trees of Eden.
The Holy Word
That walk’d among the ancient trees.
(Introduction, lines 4-5)
The two poems show vividly that Blake’s mysticism is founded on a clear understanding of the actual facts of human life but at the same time the exact meaning of these poems baffles the reader.
The very imagery represented by Introduction is sexual while in Earth’s Answer it confirms the sexual implications. The last two stanzas of the Introduction are spoken in the manner of a lover: “Arise from out the dewy grass” and “Turn away no more”, says the Bard to Earth who is treated as a woman. Yet, the Earth does not respond in the role that the Bard has hoped for: as a fulfilled and joyous woman, risen refreshed and vigorous, but as an old, worn, and disillusioned wife might do from a sexual intercourse with a husband to whom she is bound in a servile (like a slave) and joyless union. Earth wants the chain that binds free love to be shattered. It was selfishness and jealousy on the part of Jehovah to have imposed restraint on free love. Earth wonders why human beings should make love furtively (secretly) or stealthily.
Does spring hide its joy
When buds and blossoms grow?
(Earth’s Answer, lines 16-17)
It is clear that Blake looks upon the liberation of the senses and sex as a prerequisite to the regeneration or rejuvenation of mankind.
The Tiger is a marvel of poetry. It combines a vivid realism with a strong visionary quality.
Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forest of the night,
(The Tiger, lines 1-2)
The two lines quoted above are true literally and metaphorically. Literally, they refer to the fiery quality of the tiger’s eyes and the tiger’s glittering skin in the dark forest. Metaphorically, they refer to the violent, terrifying, and destructive nature of the tiger. These ideas are developed in the course of the poem, and the process, which describes the construction or the creation of the tiger has about it a visionary or mystical quality, which finds its climax in the fifth stanza of the poem, lines 17-18 in which the exact meaning of the two lines is again a riddle.
When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
According to Blake art was not a side-issue. It was not a vehicle of formal instruction. It was something that should ‘move’ man in the fullest sense of the term. It was a vision of fundamental living realities, as perceived not by the reason but by the eyes of the mind. He denied the validity of ideas imposed by custom. He declared that his vision was a vision of truth.