William Blake – “Infant Sorrow”, “A Poison Tree”, “To Tirzah” and “A Divine Image” from “Songs of Experience”

“Infant Sorrow” is obviously the counterpart to “Infant Joy”. Here Blake faces the fact that childbirth is a rather gruesome process, not only to the parents, but to the child themselves. Like in “Infant Joy”, the baby is the speaker and to him Blake pays most attention, dealing with the parents’ experience in the first line “My mother groaned, my father wept”. The child enters the dangerous world, crying loudly “like a fiend hid in a cloud”, bringing to the readers’ minds the image of the angelic child in “Introduction” to Songs of Innocence and making us question whether he was really an angel. The child immediately starts fighting, struggling in their father’s hands and striving against their swaddling bands (it was a custom back then to wrap children like tiny mummies, something you can see in some portraits of baby Jesus by old masters. People believed that children’s bones were too soft and they had to be kept in this protective cocoon.) Finally they stop struggling and decide to “sulk upon my mother’s breast”, and if you’ve ever seen an infant’s face, you recognize that look.

“A Poison Tree” is a chilling poem about the devastating results of bottling one’s rage. The speaker was once angry with his friend, said out loud whatever was bothering him and that was the end. But when he became angry with his enemy, he didn’t say it, but cherished and watered the seed until it grew into a tree. It finally produces a beautiful apple, the enemy sees it and steals it at night. In the morning the speaker notices with satisfaction the dead body of his enemy beneath the tree. The poem poses an interesting dilemma, because of course it was wrong of the speaker to nurse his grievances and let them grow, but it was also wrong of the other person to steal and it could seem like he got what he deserved.

With “To Tirzah” we are entering the complicated world of Blake’s private mythology. Tirzah is the name of the northern capital of Israel, and for Blake it was the symbol of the limited view of the world provided by our body and senses. In contrast to Jerusalem, Tirzah was the home of the “ten lost tribes”, and thus for Blake the symbol of losing one’s spiritual self. Tirzah was also the name of one of five sisters who successfully appealed to Moses to be made their father’s heirs, because they had no brothers, so some critics interpret it as the symbol of being too preoccupied with material things. Tirzah is like the mother of the physical part of his being, which Blake disavows, repeating twice the paraphrased line from the Gospel (used by Jesus addressing his mother) “what have I do with thee?” I must admit I don’t quite get the second stanza about the sexes dying, but then rising “to work & weep”. The overall thrust of the poem is the attack against Tirzah, the maker of the speaker’s physical body, which he perceives as imprisonment. Some critics argue that because Blake was rather sex-positive, this poem should be read ironically, as a satire against Puritan attitudes, so the speaker should not be by any means conflated with Blake. The second stanza is full of forging metaphors, maybe echoing the theme from “The Tyger“. Blake compares the human dress to forged iron and the human form to a fiery forge. We live in a brutal word, Blake seems to say, but isn’t this brutality also creative, even if in a scary way?

And finally “A Divine Image”, which is another answer to “The Divine Image“. It appears only in one existing copy of Songs of Experience, because Blake probably though “The Human Abstract” was a better choice. While “The Divine Image was all about how Mercy and Pity have human faces, this poem lists all the vices which have human faces, too.

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William Blake – “The Fly”, “The Tyger” and “My Pretty Rose Tree” from “Songs of Experience”

In “The Fly” the speaker muses upon the fly which he has just carelessly killed. Did he have a right to do it, he wonders. Isn’t he just like a fly or a fly just like a man? He plays and dances and sings until some careless hand brushes him away, too (echoing perhaps the famous line from King Lear “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,/They kill us for their sport”. ) If thought = life and lack of thought = death, then, as the speaker argues, he’s a happy fly, regardless of whether he lives or not. This could be interpreted in the following way: his life is as thoughtless and careless as that of the fly, so it’s the same as death. And if despite his being “dead” he seems happy, then the real death doesn’t matter, because it seems you can be happy in death, too.

As for “The Tyger”, the single most famous poem in the English language, I throw up my hands. OK, I’ll try. Blake uses on purpose the spelling of “tiger” which was already archaic in his times, maybe to signal that it’s not the actual animal he’s describing. It’s written in breathless trochaic tetrameter, with the final foot cut short (the technical term is “catalectic”). Trochees (the OOO-mpa OOO-mpa rhythm) are quite rare in English poetry and Blake occasionally slips into iambs as well, but the overall sound effect is that of speed (I’d argue it’s impossible to read “The Tyger” aloud slowly), with the final accented syllable falling down like a hammer. And it’s appropriate because hammers do appear in the poem, which is a series of questions asking the titular animal about its creator. Who forged this beast? “The Lamb”, its counterpart in Innocence provided the reader with the answer, but is it possible that the same benevolent deity created this cruel and yet beautiful predator? On a side note, the illustration for this plate is a bit of a let-down for me. I can’t blame Blake for not having Animal Planet on the cable and not being able to see an actual living tiger, but this tiger looks a lot like Tigger (Shepard’s, not Disney’s).

The Tyger BM a 1794

“My Pretty Rose Tree” is one of the poems in which Blake deals with the subject of jealousy and possessiveness in love. He returned quite obsessively to the topic, which led many critics to speculate about some problems in his marriage at this point. It’s an allegorical narrative: the speaker was offered a very beautiful flower, but he declined, saying that he already had a rose tree. But when he went to tend his tree, his Rose “turnd away with jealousy/And her thorns were my only delight.” It can be interpreted quite straightforwardly – the man is complaining he actually didn’t do anything, even though he had an opportunity, and still he has to deal with his wife’s jealousy. Robert F. Gleckner thought that it’s a poem about binding oneself to limited joys and thus passing over the chance for higher, spiritual ones.

“Lord Randall”

Today I’m starting the section with popular ballads, which became an object of academic interest since Bishop Percy published his collection in 1765. The first one is “Lord Randall”, which like many ballads has the form of a conversation between the title character and his mother. She asks him where he’s been, he says he’s been hunting and asks her, like he is going to in every stanza, to make his bed for him because he’s tired and wants to lie down. She asks him where he had his dinner, and he tells her he ate with his true love. She asks him what he’s had and he says eels boiled in broth. She then asks suspiciously what happened to his bloodhounds, and he says they swelled and died (you’d thought bloodhounds would be more easily alerted by any funny smell). She then says she is afraid he’s been poisoned, and he confirms that, finally saying that he wants her to make his bed because he’s “sick at the heart”.

Ballads, like folk tales, come in many different versions, and I couldn’t find exactly the one reprinted in the NAEL (from Child’s magisterial collection), so I picked this one, just because I like Harry Belafonte, and also because it is close to this text (the text in the NAEL does not include the last two stanzas).


Thomas Gray – “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard”

Now, this is the one poem by Gray that became really well-known, and several of its lines became familiar quotations. It was so popular that even Dr Johnson, who generally did not hold too high an opinion about Gray’s poetry, liked this poem. It is believed to be inspired by a visit to a churchyard in Stoke Poges, which village Gray regularly visited, because his mother lived there, and where he himself was buried under a rather big tombstone.
Gray's Monument

The poem begins in the evening, with the atmospheric description of the scenes which usually take place in the countryside at that time of the day: cattle and people heading home, the fading light and fading sounds of the evening landscapes, except for a (very gothic) owl complaining to the moon about the passers-by invading its loneliness.

The poet turns his attention to the “rude forefathers of the hamlet” buried in the churchyard. Why only forefathers and not mothers? There are actually reasons why Gray is only interested in men, and he does portray them explicitly as men, so there’s no chance he uses “forefathers” more generically. He starts with the usual “they will never be alive again” and then depicts their lives as they used to be, but nevermore: they will never return from their fields to their wives and children. Their present state is contrasted with the vigour with which they used to plow their fields and cut down trees. But one should not look down upon them just because they were unknown and their lives are in “the short and simple annals of the poor”. The high-born and rich people have nothing to boast about, because “the paths of glory lead but to the grave”; all the big monuments cannot resurrect those once rich and powerful.

And the people who are buried here could have been potentially great as well, it’s just that they were unlucky to be born poor. Maybe in this churchyard lies potential John Hampden, who resisted not the King but only a “little tyrant of his fields”. King Charles was imprisoned in Stoke Poges after his capture, so I guess that’s why Gray’s thought goes specifically to the 17th c. – the other great men these simple farmers could have been are Milton (“some mute inglorious Milton here may rest”) or Cromwell, but “guiltless of his country’s blood”. The virtues of these men could never be so great that they won fame and applause, but the reverse of it is that they never had a chance to commit as great crimes. They lived quiet lives, “far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”.

So Gray focuses on men, because in their case the gap between what one could achieve if he was born in a rich family was much more striking. And also because, honestly, he’s not paying that much attention. Sure, women up to the time of his writing this poem had had a much higher bar to clear to become something else than a wife, mistress or mother; the only area where a significant number of women won fame was the stage. If you were a woman, you had to win at the birth lottery to be born in a rich family as well as to be super-smart to achieve anything. But still, had Gray not been so male-oriented, he would have been able to notice that in this churchyard lies many a potential Queen Elizabeth, who was born poor and died in childbirth.

William Blake illustrated this poem beautifully as well:

William Blake - The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 105, "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard." - Google Art Project

William Blake - The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 107, "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard." - Google Art Project

William Blake - The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 109, "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard." - Google Art Project

William Blake - The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 111, "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard." - Google Art Project

Olaudah Equiano – “The Interesting Narrative…” (ctd.)

The white sailors are cruel not only to the Africans, but also to other whites: Equiano saw a white man flogged to death and tossed overboard. Much of what he sees around him doesn’t make sense to him and he asks his countrymen for explanation. They tell him that the white people live in a country far away, and the reason why he can’t see any women is that they all stayed behind. They also explain to him that the ship is moved by the power of the wind, but they don’t know how the anchor works and they can only tell it stops by magic. Equiano soon has a chance to see for himself how this works, as another ship comes into the harbour. The sailors from the other ship come on board, they greet the white people enthusiastically, and surprisingly enough, they also shake hands with some of the blacks. They try to show the Africans by signs that they are going to their country, but the Africans don’t understand them. After a few days the ship sets out. The passage is horrific, with people suffocating under deck with the stench of their sweat and excrements from the latrines. Some of the weakest ones, including Equiano, are allowed to stay on the deck to get some air. When on deck, Equiano sees three slaves getting through the netting surrounding the sides of the ship and jumping into the sea, preferring death. The whites put all the other blacks under the deck and immediately set out in pursuit of the blacks: two of them drown, but they manage to catch one and flog him mercilessly. They are also gratuitously cruel, like when they catch some fish and throw out the ones they didn’t eat, even though the blacks are begging for them. One of the few nicer moments  is when a sailor lets Equiano look through a quadrant he uses for navigation.

Finally they reach Barbados. Equiano is surprised by many things he sees there, including multi-storied houses and people on horseback, which he again considers magic. But other people who speak Igbo, even though they are from a part of Africa distant from Equiano’s own, tell him they have seen horses in their homeland as well. The whites come on board of the ship to have a first look at the enslaved people. The Africans are scared, thinking they are going to be eaten, and there is so much turmoil that some slaves from the plantations are sent for, to explain to people that they are not to be eaten but to work. The next day the slaves are put out to sale. The usual method is that they are sold in groups, and when the  signal is given, the merchants rush to call dibs on the “parcel” they want to buy; they look so feverish during this competition that they scare the Africans even more. The worst part is that people are put in “parcels” indiscriminately, with families being torn apart, and Equiano himself saw a heart-rending scene when several brothers were separated. He writes very bitterly about “nominal Christians” who not only buy and sell slaves out of avarice, but also cruelly and wantonly deprive people of the comfort of having their relations with them. This cruelty at least “has no advantage to atone for it”, writes Equiano, although I guess it had a purpose – by separating families the slave owners wanted to stave off the possibility of a rebellion.

Olaudah Equiano – “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself” (excerpts)

Finally, after so many texts about slaves (both real and fictional), we get the authentic voice of a man who was enslaved himself. Olaudah Equiano, an Igbo boy, was kidnapped by slave hunters in Africa, sold in America to a British officer who renamed him Gustavus Vassa after a Swedish king. (The NAEL editors think that it was an attempt to hide his identity from the authorities, because keeping slaves was frowned upon in the British navy. I think the NAEL editors just fail to see that calling somebody after a fairly famous Swedish king is no disguise at all, and that Equiano’s owner had just a sick sense of humour, naming his black slave after a Swedish hero, similarly to other slave owners who liked to name their slaves after Roman gods or heroes.) The name stuck and he used it for the rest of his life, using his real Nigerian name (or its anglicised form) just in this book’s title. The excerpt starts when Olaudah is taken away from the home of his last owner (who used to treat him kindly, but apparently only as a piece of investment) and transported to the ship. He is shocked not so much by the ship and the sea, but most of all by the white people, whom he sees for the first time, their faces and long hair. He thinks he is in hell and they are evil spirits. He faints and when he comes round, the blacks who brought him to the ship try to cheer him up. One of the whites brings him a glass of liquor, which he refuses to take from his hand, but accepts it when a black man gives it to him. The liquor confuses him even more, since he never drank it before. He is then thrown under the deck where he is overpowered by the stench and crying. He wants to die, but when he refuses to eat, the whites flog him. He finds other Igbo people and asks them what is going to happen to them. They tell him they are going to be carried to the land of the white people, where they are going to work for them. Olaudah is a bit cheered by it, but he is still afraid he is going to be killed, especially seeing how cruelly they treat him and other enslaved people.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury -“‘Sensus Communis’: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour” (excerpts)

The future 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury was pretty much the child of John Locke without actually sharing his DNA: Locke allegedly negotiated his parents’ marriage, assisted as a physician at his birth and was his tutor. The excerpt starts with Shaftesbury addressing a nameless friend, who yesterday expressed his surprise, when Shaftesbury defended in his conversation “raillery”, and Shaftesbury decided to give this thought a more thorough treatment. Firstly, he hopes his friend was surprised not because he considers him to be such a grouch, but because most people, while they are OK with making fun of other people’s views, do not like it when the same thing happens to them. But truth can exist only in full light, and raillery is one of such lights.