in verse # 33 : a Blake vision

William Blake was perfectly capable of writing rhyming verse; it can and has been set to music.  Here is the text of an anthem known as “Jerusalem,” written by Blake around 1804 and set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916:[i]

And did those feet in ancient time,                                                                                               Walk upon Englands mountains green:                                                                                           And was the holy Lamb of God,                                                                                                        On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,                                                                                                     Shine forth upon our clouded hills?                                                                                                    And was Jerusalem builded here,                                                                                                     Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:                                                                                                    Bring me my Arrows of desire:                                                                                                       Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!                                                                                                Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,                                                                                                 Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:                                                                                              Till we have built Jerusalem,                                                                                                               In Englands green & pleasant Land.[ii]

“Those feet” are the feet of Jesus, and Blake is responding to the legend that he was brought to England during the “lost years[iii]” of his youth by his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea — a myth which Blake then connects to the idea that Jesus will return to build a New Jerusalem, as set forth in two places in the book of Revelation.[iv]  In chapter 3, verse 12 we read, in words attributed to Jesus, “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, [which is] new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and [I will write upon him] my new name.”[v]  This verse assures the individual of salvation, but in chapter 21, verse 2, the promise of a new Jerusalem is tied to the church:  “And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”  The image of the church as the Bride of Christ is one that Jesus himself used, and is familiar enough as to require no explanation.[vi]

So if Blake was able to write such elegant poetry, why did he, almost from the first, also write poems in this kind of verse:

This theme calls me in sleep night after night, & ev’ry morn                                                 Awakes me at sun-rise, then I see the Saviour over me                                                           Spreading his beams of love, & dictating the words of this mild song.

Awake! awake O sleeper of the land of shadows, wake! expand!                                                   I am in you and you in me, mutual in love divine:                                                                         Fibres of love from man to man thro’ Albion’s pleasant land.                                                       In all the dark Atlantic vale down from the hills of Surrey                                                           A black water accumulates, return Albion! return!                                                                        Thy brethren call thee, and thy fathers, and thy sons,                                                                  Thy nurses and thy mothers, thy sisters and thy daughters                                                       Weep at thy soul’s disease, and the Divine Vision is darken’d :                                                    Thy Emanation that was wont to play before thy face,                                                               Beaming forth with her daughters into the Divine bosom,                                                       Where hast thou hidden thy Emanation lovely Jerusalem                                                            From the vision and fruition of the Holy-one?                                                                                 I am not a God afar off, I am a brother and friend ;                                                                       Within your bosoms I reside, and you reside in me:                                                                      Lo! we are One; forgiving all Evil; Not seeking recompense;                                                        Ye are my members O ye sleepers of Beulah, land of shades![vii]

Blake, of course owes no man an explanation of his choice of verse of the poem; but, like Milton with Paradise lost, he made one, in a prefatory note entitled “To the Public.”  This part of the note is headed “Of the Measure, in which the following poem is written,” and transcribed here as it stands on Blake’s engraved sheet, although Keynes transcribes it as prose.  I transcribe it in its original lines so that you may compare it with the text above and see the difference between the two clusters of lines of text:

We who dwell on Earth can do nothing of ourselves, every thing                                                is conducted by Spirits, no less than Digestion or Sleep

When this Verse was first dictated to me I consider’d                                                                     a Monotonous Cadence like that used by Milton & Shak-                                                              speare & all writers of English Blank Verse, derived                                                                    from the modern bondage of Rhyming, to be a necessary                                                            and indispensable part of Verse. But I soon found that                                                                 in the mouth of a true Orator such monotony was not                                                                 only awkward, but as much a bondage as rhyme itself.                                                                  I therefore have produced a variety in every line, both                                                                 of cadences & number of syllables. Every word and                                                                     every letter is studied and put into its fit place:  the                                                                       terrific numbers are reserved for the terrific parts,                                                                     the mild & gentle, for the mild & gentle parts, and                                                                        the prosaic, for inferior parts; all are necessary to                                                                       each other. Poetry Fetter’d, Fetters the Human Race!                                                                 Nations are Destroy’d, or Flourish, in proportion as Their                                                           Poetry, Painting and Music, are Destroy’d, or Flourish!                                                              The Primeval State of Man was Wisdom, Art, and Science.

That explanation might be put forth by any contemporary American poet and seem to reflect her practice pretty clearly.  I put it here so that you can see the difference between Blake at his most prosaic, and Blake in prophetic mode (in the first excerpt).  For example, notice how often in the former the second half of a line recapitulates the first half, but with variation, as in “I am in you and you in me, mutual in love divine,” or “I am not a God afar off, I am a brother and friend.”  There is nothing like that in the note “Of the Measure.”  My father taught me to call that feature “incremental repetition”:  the second half of the line repeats the sentiment of the first half, but with a change that expands its meaning.  We were not discussing Blake, however; we were talking about Hebrew poetry, as exemplified in the Old Testament, and he was telling me what he had learned in a class on “The Bible as literature”.  And that’s where I think Blake got it.

I don’t think Blake knew much about Hebrew poetics, but he called these long books in his long line “prophecies”.  Hebrew poems do not rhyme, nor do they scan in the “Monotonous Cadence like that used by Milton & Shakspeare & all writers of English Blank Verse”.  In stead of rhyme, they employ what Robert Alter calls “semantic parallelism” and “syntactic parallelism.”[viii]   You can see what Alter is talking about in the following excerpt from chapter 1 of the book of Nahum, which I have arranged so as to identify the lines of poetry the way Alter does, by presenting the two halves, or hemistichs, on the same line [separated by 4 spaces — I have not followed my usual practice of making the lines single-spaced because many of the lines are too long for what WordPress considers to be a line of text]:

2God [is] jealous, and the Lord revengeth:    the Lord revengeth, and [is] furious,

the Lord will take vengeance on his adversaries,    and he reserveth [wrath] for his enemies.

3The Lord [is] slow to anger, and great in power,    and will not at all acquit [the wicked]:

the Lord [hath] his way in the whirlwind and in the storm,    and the clouds [are] the dust of his feet  {I love the imagery of clouds as puffs of dust from the feet of a walker in heaven  — Nahum was truly a desert-dweller}.

4He rebuketh the sea, and maketh it dry,    and drieth up all the rivers:

Bashan languisheth, and Carmel,    and the flower of Lebanon languisheth.

5The mountains quake at him, and the hills melt,    and the earth is burnt at his presence,

yea, the world and all that dwell therein.

6Who can stand before his indignation?    and who can abide in the fierceness of his anger?

his fury is poured out like fire,    and the rocks are thrown down by him.

7The Lord [is] good, a stronghold in the day of trouble,    and he knoweth them that trust in him.

8But with an overrunning flood he will make an utter end of the place thereof,    and darkness shall pursue his enemies.

9What do ye imagine against the Lord? he will make an utter end:    affliction shall not rise up the second time.

10For while [they be] folded together [as] thorns,    and while they are drunken [as] drunkards,

they shall be devoured as stubble fully dry.

11There is [one] come out of thee, that imagineth evil against the Lord,    a wicked counsellor.

So, Blake was a student of the Bible?  Well, rather than stick my neck out on that one, let me say that I believe he could hear those parallel passages and recognize them as poetry.  Remember that quaint phrase on the title-page of the King James Bible, “Appointed to be read in Churches”?  As if you couldn’t read it at home?  Well, no.  The translators produced a liturgical text, a text intended to be heard by the congregation, to be read aloud by the priest or preacher or lector, still working with the model of a literate clergy and an illiterate laity in mind (although the Reformation had long shattered the model) — but this was produced for the Anglican church, the Presbyterian church, the high churches, not for dissenters or Puritans or round-heads or Methodists or any of the rabble who had been taught to read from the Bible.  But I’m exaggerating; literacy was growing with a rising merchant class as the old feudal system rotted in the ground, and the King James Bible wasn’t the only text available by a long shot.  But, like Hamlet, like Paradise lost, like MacFlecknoe, it was written to be heard.  That’s where that parallelism in the structure of Blake’s long line comes from.  Sez me.

But hold on, I hear you say:  Blake couldn’t have just invented an entire new prosody, like, say, free verse?

Your turn.


[i] Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/And_did_those_feet_in_ancient_time

[ii] Milton / William Blake. –  edited and with a commentary by Kay Parkhurst Easson and Roger R. Easson. —  (The sacred art of the world). – Boulder : Shambala ; New York : Random House, 1978, p. 12 (which reproduces plate 2, from which I have made this transcription, of the engraved poem).

[iii] A phrase employed by many writers, among them Charles Francis Potter in his The lost years of Jesus revealed, (Newly revised second edition. – Greenwich, Conn. : Fawcett, 1962) which has the subtitle on the cover of “newest revelations of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag-Hammadi discoveries,” which trumpets Potter’s belief that Jesus was studying with the Essenes between the ages of 12 and 30 and became one of them, and thus was really not a Christian.  The idea that Jesus was a student of a far older tradition doesn’t bother me at all, but then I’m a Mormon and follower of Joseph Smith.

[iv] Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/And_did_those_feet_in_ancient_time

[v] The Bible, with the Apocrypha : King James Version. — London : Folio Society, 2008, reprinting The new Cambridge paragraph Bible with the Apocrypha : King James Version / edited by David Norton. — Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2005, which presents the text established by the translators, though in consistent modern spelling and punctuation.  All further quotations in this post are from this text.  To the text I have added brackets where the translators, trying to be scrupulous, used italics to indicate English words with no counterpart in the Hebrew or Greek, words they added to the text to clarify it.  They can often be left out when reading the text.  This is thus not the text of the first edition of 1611, but of the manuscripts which underlie it, much as Royal Skousen has reconstructed the manuscript text of The Book of Mormon in The Book of Mormon : the earliest text / edited by  Royal Skousen. – New Haven : Yale University Press, c2009.

[vi] But for those of you who want one, Wikipedia lists most of the relevant verses in its article “Bride of Christ”.

[vii] Jerusalem / William Blake. — [William Blake Trust ed.] / foreword by Geoffrey Keynes. — London : Trianon, 1952, p. 3, reproducing plate 4.  Blake’s book is entitled, on plate 2, Jerusalem, the emanation of the giant Albion.  This edition ‘is the first complete edition containing the text of “Jerusalem” in letter press with a facsimile of the engraved book.’

[viii] The art of Biblical poetry / Robert Alter. — New York : Basic Books, c1985, pp. ix, 18-19 et passim.

About Dennis Clark

Dennis Clark should have been locked up long ago, but since he was allowed to wed and breed, the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the cat is pawing the toothpaste and you should be careful what you put in your mouth. Put a good poem in your mouth!
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2 Responses to in verse # 33 : a Blake vision

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Poetry was not one of my original avenues of approach to literature, but rather something I learned to appreciate only after being required to read it for college English classes. I’d still say that poetry isn’t one of my areas of particular familiarity.

    So I’m impressed when something is obvious enough for me to “get it.” In this case, I was surprised to find myself thinking (on reading the “Awake! awake” excerpt) to find myself thinking that it sounded *exactly* like the Old Testament.

    On a different note, I’m probably one of a relatively few people nowadays who first became familiar with “Jerusalem” as a work of poetry not set to music. And I have to say that I think there’s a strength in the poem–a zeal–that is completely lost in the musical setting. I’ve also wondered if the last part of the poem represents Blake’s take on Milton’s character as a genuine (in some senses) religious zealot: someone who burned with a passion for the Christian cause as he saw it, and its application in an earthly government. But I haven’t studied Blake’s attitude toward Milton (a complex one I understand), or even Milton’s life in depth, and so I don’t know if this interpretation is off the mark.

  2. Dennis Clark says:

    I have to agree with you, Jonathan, that, as Parry set the poem, its strength as a call to arms is muted. It is quite possible that Blake is drawing inspiration from Milton in the last two stanzas of the poem. Milton was zealous enough that he was a prominent advocate for the Parliamentary party; as Wikipedia summarized it, “Milton’s political reputation got him appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues by the Council of State in March 1649. Though Milton’s main job description was to compose the English Republic’s foreign correspondence in Latin, he also was called upon to produce propaganda for the regime and to serve as a censor.”

    It’s clear from his poetry that Blake was no royalist; he was raised by Dissenters, who, according to Peter Ackroyd in his great biography _Blake_, would have “retained the old radical traditions of commentary and exegesis” — Milton’s traditions. It was, after all, Milton’s tracts advocating for divorce that caused him, in self-defense, to write and publish “Aeropagitica.” So you should be right on the mark with that observation.

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