Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 4. Beginnings of Mysticism; Songs of Innocence and Thel

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

IX. Blake

§ 4. Beginnings of Mysticism; Songs of Innocence and Thel

A comparison of Songs of Innocence (1789) with Poetical Sketches shows that the promise of Blake’s earlier poetry has, indeed, been fulfilled, but in a somewhat unexpected way. Naturally, the maturer work is free from the juvenile habit of imitation; it is, however, of interest to note in passing the suggestion that the hint of the composition of these Songs may have come from a passage in Dr. Watts’s preface to his Divine and Moral Songs for Children. Moreover, the baneful Ossianic influence is suspended for a space. But the vital difference is that here, for the first time, Blake gives clear indication of the mystical habit of thought, which, though at first an integral part of his peculiar lyrical greatness, ultimately turned to his undoing. In Poetical Sketches, his vision of life is direct and naïve: he delights in the physical attributes of nature, its breadth and its wonders of light and motion, of form and melody. But, in Songs of Innocence, his interest is primarily ethical. The essence of all being, as set forth in the piece called The Divine Image, is the spirit of “Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love”; and as, later, he uses the terms “poetic genius” and “imagination” to express his conception of this fundamental principle, so, here, the “Divine Image” is his vision of that spirit which is at once universal and particular, God and Man. Under the inspiration of this belief, the world of experience fades away: there is nothing of death, pain or cruelty, except in the opening couplet of The Chimney Sweeper, and, even then, the idea of suffering is almost lost in the clear sense of a sustaining presence of love in the rest of the poem. Every other instance shows sorrow and difficulty to be but occasions for the immediate manifestation of sympathy. God, as the tender Father, the angels, the shepherd, the mother, the nurse, or even the humbler forms of insect and flower, as in The Blossom, or A Dream,—all are expressions of the same universal ethic of love. But, perhaps, the most remarkable illustration of this belief, particularly when contrasted with Blake’s later criticism of public charity, is Holy Thursday. Clearly, in the world of these Songs there is not any suspicion of motives, no envy or jealousy. To use a later phrase by Blake, it is a “lower Paradise,” very near to the perfect time wherein the lion shall lie down with the lamb: as in the poem Night, the angels of love are always by, to restrain violence or to bring solace to its victims.

The theological reference in this simple ethic is slight. God and Jesus are but visions of the love that animates all forms of being. Hence, at this period, Blake’s position is distinct from that of mystical poets like Henry Vaughan, in whom a more dogmatic faith tends to overshadow the appeal of the natural universe. So, too, Blake’s poetry has more of the instinct of human joy. Mercy, pity, peace and love, the elements of the Divine Image, are “virtues of delight,” and nothing is clearer in these Songs than his quick intuition and unerring expression of the light and gladness in common things. In this, he returns to poems in Poetical Sketches like I love the jocund dance, rather than to the more formal pieces of nature-poetry. His delight in the sun, the hills, the streams, the flowers and buds, in the innocence of the child and of the lamb, comes not from sustained contemplation but as an immediate impulse. There is not as yet any sign of his later attitude towards the physical world as a “shadow of the world of eternity.” His pleasure in the consciousness of this unifying spirit in the universe was still too fresh to give pause for theorising; and, perhaps for this reason, such pieces as Laughing Song, Spring, The Echoing Green, The Blossom and Night, sung in pure joy of heart, convey more perfectly than all his later attempts at exposition the nature of his visionary faith. In Blake’s later writings, there is a wide gulf between the symbol and the reality it conveys; so, the reader must first grapple with a stubborn mass of symbolism. But, in Songs of Innocence, this faculty of “spiritual sensation” transfigures rather than transforms. Thus, in The Lamb, pleasure in the natural image persists, but is carried further and exalted by the implication of a higher significance. It is the manifest spontaneity of this mystical insight that carries Blake safely over dangerous places. A little faltering in the vision or straining after effect would have sunk him, by reason of the simplicity of theme, diction and metre, now the sources of peculiar pleasure, into unthinkable depths of feebleness. Contrast with the strength of these seemingly fragile lines the more consciously didactic pieces like The Chimney Sweeper and The Little Black Boy. These, indeed, have the pleasant qualities of an unpretentious and sincere spirit; but their burden of instruction brings them too near to the well-meant but somewhat pedagogic verse that writers like Nathaniel Cotton and Isaac Watts thought most suitable for the young. Blake regarded children more humanly as the charming “Introduction” to these Songs bears witness, or the poem Infant Joy, a perfect expression of the appeal of infancy. And, in The Cradle Song, almost certainly suggested by Watts’s lines beginning “Hush! my dear, lie still and slumber,” Blake’s deeper humanity lifts him far above the common-place moralisings of his model.

The Book of Thel was engraved in the same year (1789), though its final section is almost certainly later in date. The regularity of its unrimed fourteeners, the idyllic gentleness of its imagery and the not unpleasant blending of simplicity and formalism in the diction, proclaim the mood of Songs of Innocence. It treats of the same all-pervading spirit of mutual love and self-sacrifice. In response to the “gentle lamentations” of the virgin Thel, to whom life seems vain, and death utter annihilation, the lily of the valley, the cloud, the worm and the clod, rise up to testify to the interdependence of all forms of being under the law of the Divine Image, and to show that death is not final extinction, but the supreme manifestation of this impulse to “willing sacrifice of self.” Blake’s original conclusion to this argument is lost, for the last section has not any perceptible connection in its context. In it, the whole conception of life is changed. This world is a dark prison, and the physical senses are narrow windows darkening the infinite soul of man by excluding “the wisdom and joy of eternity,” the condition of which is freedom. The source of this degradation is the tyranny of abstract moral law, the “mind-forged manacles” upon natural and, therefore, innocent desires; its symbols are the silver rod of authority and the golden bowl of a restrictive ethic that would mete out the immeasurable spirit of love. Here, Blake is clearly enough in the grip of the formal antinomianism that produced the later “prophecies.”