Monday, November 14, 2005

Poem of the Week 11/14/2005: From "Europe: A Prophecy"

From "Europe: A Prophecy", Plate 9(b)

There stand the venerable porches that high-towering rear
Their oak-surrounded pillars, form’d of massy stones, uncut
With tool, stones precious; such eternal in the heavens,
Of colours twelve, few known on earth, give light in the opake,
Plac’d in the order of the stars, when the five senses whelmed
In deluge o’er the earth-born man; then turn’d the fluxile eyes
Into two stationary orbs, concentrating all things,
The ever-varying spiral ascents to the heavens of heavens
Were bended downward; and the nostrils golden gates shut
Turn’d outward, barr’d and petrify’d against the infinite.

Thought chang’d the infinite to a serpent; that which pitieth;
To a devouring flame; and man fled from its face and hid
In forests of night; then all the eternal forests were divided
Into earths rolling in circles of space, that line an ocean rush’d
And overwhelmed all except this finite wall of flesh.
Then was the serpent temple form’d, image of infinite
Shut up in finite revolutions, and man became an Angel;
Heaven a mighty circle turning; God a tyrant crown’d.

William Blake 1794

I don’t usually choose poems that we are working on in class for the Poem of the Week, because it seems unfair, too easy. I don’t want to report on class, I want to look at them without any outside influence. This excerpt from Blake’s marvelous Europe: A Prophecy is an exception, though, because it is among the most beautiful things I have ever read, if not the most beautiful thing. Right up there with the end of The Great Gastby, the end of Love in the Time of Cholera, “You Begin” by Margaret Atwood, and the Thirteenth Book of Wordsworth’s The Prelude. I write those down because you should all take a look at those if you get a chance – they are all breathtaking, literally. When I first read this passage, I had to stop and read it five or six more times; I was awestruck, literally, but didn’t have an idea concerning the swirling celestial imager’s meaning. Thanks mainly to class and (to some extent) an accidental ownership of several critical works on Blake, I have basically been able to parse out what he’s saying. It is no less beautiful than the words themselves.

Here goes.

The poem opens discussing a Druidic temple in “golden Verulam”, a reference that I have not included above. Its specific character is relevant in discussing this small portion of text, and it may ease any confusion about what the “oak-surrounded pillars” and “venerable porches” refer to. The important piece to know is that it was built, if I am reading it correctly, when man was first brought into physical form. A translation of the first several lines would read “they placed in the shapes of constellations twelve stones of colors unknown to man at the time when the sensual world flooded man”. Blake uses the word “whelm” to point out that man was overcome with the five senses, losing his balance with the universe. They flooded him in a “deluge” and limited his sight. “Fluxile eyes” indicates that the eyes were, at one time, capable of seeing more of the heavens. Now, they are reductive and “concentrate all things”. This is, essentially, a description of the Fall from Eden.

Blake, we learned in class, read man’s fall from Eden as a tumble from the infinite to the finite. Our senses limit us, contain us, yes, though they are by no means bad, as a glance at this passage might lead one to believe. Rather, they can be expanded upon and taught to see, hear, feel, taste, and touch infinity in the particular. Organized religion, however, suppresses the senses’ capability to feel the joy dancing through all the earth. This passage clearly demonstrates that Blake appreciates the senses; nostrils have “golden gates” and the eyes are “orbs”. Sensuality seems negative here because it has been shut to the greater spiritual world, seen when Blake writes, “the ever-varying spiral ascents to the heavens of heavens / Were bended downward”. The onset of Druidic religion shrinks man’s world and stifles the infinite, that which is most awful (in the old sense of the word: awe-full).

That is the first stanza. The second is decidedly more obscure and difficult. Blake continues discussing Druidism, the senses, and infinity; looking at these elements can help us understand the second part. The infinite, in the first line, is turned into a serpent, “that which pitieth”. The serpent is a symbol of the Druids, and “thought” is presumably human thought following the fall into a finite sensual realm. Thus, Druidism is the product and symbol of the fall.

With the rise of religion, man flees and enters darkness. He takes himself away from higher thought and enters “the forests of night”. “Night” signifies an ending, a clot inhibiting higher thinking. Once he flees, then, the “eternal forests” get divided; the fall of the land follows the fall of man. That the earths spin in “circles of space” suggests containment, limits, and bindings.

The next piece, “That line an ocean rush’d / And overwhelmed all except this finite wall of flesh” treats the nature of man and recalls the flood-imagery from the first stanza. “That line” is necessarily ambiguous; to me, it implies a boundary line, the line drawn between infinity and the finite self, though it could be any number of different things. In class today we discussed that there is a kind of unknown sitting at the heart of Blake’s work that makes it so fantastic. I think that we get used to pinning things down and knowing for sure, so not-knowing and not being able to restrict ourselves to a single definition is an experience well-worth having. It requires a certain confidence in the self, I think, or perhaps a willingness to be small or insignificant. To acknowledge that one lies beneath greater understanding breaks down ego, allowing us greater mobility. Even seeing that one is in this cave, a metaphor Blake often uses, will allow one to discover exits or chinks in the ceiling.

The final three lines comment upon the negativity of man’s fall from grace. The temple formed mocks the fettered consciousness of man, standing as an altar to violence (the temple at Verulam was a sacrificial temple, so we learned in class today that Blake suggests that the fall somehow leads to sacrifice and thus violence). I don’t agree with the critics I have on hand about the he closing lines, “man became an Angel; /Heaven a mighty circle turning; God a tyrant crown’d.”. They claim that it simply extends the connection between the Edenic Fall and the rise of the Druids. I say that the final lines are much richer than this. Man becoming an Angel is not a positive comment that he is returning to a state of grace; Angels in Blake’s work are often agents of destruction and oppression (though they are by no means limited to that position). In this case, man would become an agent of his own destruction, for it is he who enacts the suppressive forces. More ominously, too, is the idea that Heaven itself gets constrained when turned into a circle. I want to point out here that heaven only seems a circle to man - the fall has made heaven like a circle, has made the eternal realm of God (is this what heaven is? any ideas?) finite as we percieve it. Instead of stretching endlessly, it twists back into itself, existing only as the tight circle that man’s puny senses can perceive. The fall perverts God for man as well; He is no longer a joyful loving creator, but a constructed “tyrant crown’d”. This label relates the corruption of organized religion permeating 18th Century Britain, for priests were easily as oppressive as the government.

Before I finish up, I think that I ought to clarify the view of the senses, for I have been rather vague about their position. The senses, to Blake, are God-given gifts, though they do evidence our separation from the infinite world. They ought to be rejoiced in, however, and only tend to limit us when limited themselves. Denying the pleasures of the body distances man even further from the infinite, and it is only in experiencing the world that we can reclaim part of our original heritance. It is poetry and the poet’s job to enlarge the senses; engendering paradox is one way of doing this, as is living with every atom, really feeling life.

If I am have rambled from time to time in this PotW, it is only because Blake, above all, invites us to think. This is, perhaps, our duty to the infinite, another way of embracing the joy of the senses. We can and indeed should experience the infinite through our senses. They perceive the “ever-varying spiral ascents to the heavens of heavens” and rejoice in them.


ninjatomninja said...

It's Blake!

Man. Poem of the Week gets serious.
I'm impressed that you're attacking a poet who befuddles just about everyone.

I kind of disagree with your interpretation of heaven, god the tyrant, and the tension between the infinite, the finite, and the fall.

I'm going to talk to you in class about it!

Have a good night, Sarah!

Sarah E. Smith said...

Yeah Blake.

I hope that I addressed your comment about Heaven, Blake, and God in the revised PotW - I only added a sentence clarifying (hopefully! - for readers and myself) that Heaven is constrained by our senses. I think of it like the range of one's vision; if we could see forever, we could interact with eternity, but pesky things like the refraction of light and so on and so forth inhibit us. That is a very physical metaphor for the constraint of heaven - Blake moves metaphysically. I am a little too tired to tackle that one, I think.

Thanks for commenting - it makes the blog/world better.