Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 16. Lesser Verse and Prose

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

IX. Blake

§ 16. Lesser Verse and Prose

Such, in brief, seems to have been the course of Blake’s development. It still remains to notice the more formal verse and the prose of this latest period. The first, which, during Blake’s lifetime, remained in the Rossetti and Pickering MSS., is, though slight in bulk, of remarkable quality. It includes such lovely lyrics as Morning, The Land of Dreams, or the penultimate stanza of The Grey Monk. But the most singular are the abstruse symbolic poems The Smile, The Golden Net and The Crystal Cabinet, which seem to embody the visionary’s consciousness of the unholy beauty and seductiveness of the natural world. Unfamiliar as is their language, they make a real, though illusive, appeal, which may ultimately lie in the romantic cast and spontaneity of the imagery, as well as in their perfection of lyrical form. The other symbolic poems, such as The Mental Traveller and My Spectre around me, lacking this directness and unity of expression, fall short of a like effectiveness. But all these poems stand aloof from purely human feeling. Except The Birds, a most un-Blakean idyllic duologue, they rarely touch the common lyric chords. They are primarily spiritual documents. Mary, William Bond and Auguries of Innocence illustrate this. The last-mentioned poem, though it has passages of real force and beauty, depends, for its adequate understanding, upon the doctrine underlying it, the identity of all forms of being in the divine humanity: “all are Men in Eternity.” The recognition of this principle gives cogency and deep truth to what must otherwise appear exaggerated emphasis of statement. But, the reserve of poetic power in Blake is most clearly revealed in The Everlasting Gospel. Metrically, it is based upon the same octosyllabic scheme as Christabel, though it is handled so as to produce quite different effects. In spirit, it comes nearest to The Marriage, developing, with wonderful fertility of illustration, the theme of Jesus as the archrebel. Yet, its value as a statement of Blake’s position is subordinate to its poetic excellences, its virile diction and its sturdy, yet supple, metre, following, with consummate ease, the rapid transitions from spirited declamation to satire or paradox.

Blake’s prose has the directness and simplicity that distinguish his poetry. Except for the Descriptive Catalogue, for the engraved pieces, such as the introductions to the “books” of Jerusalem, and for the letters, it lies scattered in the Rossetti MS. and in marginalia to Reynolds’s Discourses and other works. Yet, in spite of its casual character, it is a quite efficient instrument, whether for lofty declaration of faith, as in the addresses To the Deists or To the Christians or for critical appreciation, as in the famous note on The Canterbury Tales admired by Lamb. It also served as a vigorous, if sometimes acrimonious, medium, for expressing Blake’s objections to those whose opinions or artistic practice ran counter to his own. But, it is almost always perfectly sound, though without conscious seeking after style. His letters have the same virtues, but their chief interest would seem to lie in the insight which they give into his character and the light they throw upon the symbolism of the prophetic books.