in verse # 34 : a different Blake

If William Blake is the father of contemporary American free verse, Emily Dickinson is surely its mother.  But hold on, I hear you say, wasn’t that father Walt Whitman?  Well, maybe he was the godfather.  And I am aware of the distance in time and space between the father and the mother, and the fact that Dickinson may have never heard of, let alone read, Blake.  Although he could have visited her as an emanation.  Maybe that’s what she was writing about in “Wild nights.”  So call it an immaculate conception, if you will.

I will.

After all, Blake worked with a biblical line, and Dickinson with a wide selection of meters, most commonly the ballad stanza of four lines in 4, 3, 4 and 3 stresses, a meter common in hymns as well.  Blake has always been known as an eccentric and experimental poet.  It is becoming clearer, as explorations of Dickinson’s manuscripts[i] proceed apace, that she was more experimental than eccentric.[ii]   More on Dickinson later, but for now the focus is on Blake.  And in my last post, I neglected perhaps one of the best sources on Blake’s relationship to the Bible.  Peter Ackroyd, in his biography of Blake, says this, which is worth reading at length in relation to Blake’s prosody:

His early biographers do agree upon a single aspect of his childhood, however, since it is one that affected his entire life — his closest and most significant attachment [among books] was to the Bible.  I would have been the staple reading of his family, the object of continual meditation and interpretation.  It is hard to re-imagine a culture in which that book was the central and pre-eminent text, through which the world itself was to be understood, but the sectaries of mid-eighteenth-century England [Blake’s parents were Dissenters from the Church of England] still retained the old radical traditions of commentary and exegesis. …  His poetry and painting are imbued with biblical motifs and images; the very curve and cadence of his sentences are derived from the Old Testament, while his passages of ritualistic description and denunciation come from the words of the great prophets that were heard in the house on Broad Street.[iii]

As I said in that last post, “The translators [of the Authorized Version] produced a liturgical text, a text intended to be heard by the congregation, to be read aloud by the priest or preacher or lector” — or, in Blake’s case, mother and father and siblings and, eventually, himself.  As Ackroyd notes above, “the very curve and cadence of his sentences are derived from the Old Testament.”  But here a word of caution is in order, a caution that I myself need to recall:  it comes from David Norton, the editor of The new Cambridge paragraph Bible, discussing the work of the translators of the Authorized Version.  “Poetic parts of the text” he says

have been given in verse lines.  Here a word of caution is necessary:  it is not always clear what parts of the original were poetry, nor how that poetry should be lineated; moreover, the King James Bible was made as a prose translation, and its words only sometimes work as verse.  Nevertheless, the appearance of poetry, at the least, may act as a reminder that some parts were originally poetry.  Sometimes it may do more, bringing out the structure of the poetry and more of the rhythm of the text.[iv]

But as you saw in that last post, Blake’s verse does have the lilt and stress of the biblical poetry exemplified in the selection from Nahum.  In this post, I want to examine the “curve and cadence” of his sentences, from the epic heroic Milton.  I have included what Ackroyd calls “his passages of ritualistic description and denunciation” in this selection, first the ritualistic description, followed by the denunciation in the conversation between the Shadowy Female and Orc (I needed this long a passage to give you the context of Milton’s journey; the poem is transcribed as nearly as I can get it from the plates themselves, reflecting Blake’s paucity of punctuation):

But Miltons Human Shadow continu’d journeying above
The rocky masses of The Mundane Shell; in the Lands
Of Edom & Aram & Moab & Midian & Amalek.

The Mundane Shell, is a vast Concave Earth: an immense
Hardend shadow of all things upon our Vegetated Earth
Enlarg’d into dimension & deform’d into indefinite space
In Twenty-seven Heavens and all their Hells; with Chaos
And Ancient Night; & Purgatory. It is a cavernous Earth
Of labyrinthine intricacy   twenty-seven-folds of opakeness
And finishes where the lark mounts; here Milton journeyed
In that Region calld Midian among the Rocks of Horeb
For travellers from Eternity. pass outward to Satans seat,
But travellers to Eternity. pass inward to Golgonooza.

Los the Vehicular terror beheld him, & divine Enitharmon
Call’d all her daughters, Saying, Surely to unloose my bond
Is this Man come! Satan shall be unloosd upon Albion

Los heard in terror Enitharmons words: in fibrous strength
His limbs shot forth like roots of trees against the forward path,
Of Miltons jouney.  Urizen beheld the immortal Man,
And Tharmas Demon of the Waters, & Orc, who is Luvah

The Shadowy Female seeing Milton, howl’d in her lamentation
Over the Deeps, outstretching her Twenty seven Heavens over Albion

And thus the Shadowy Female howls in articulate howlings

I will lament over Milton in the lamentations of the afflicted
My Garments shall be woven of sighs & heart broken lamentations
The misery of unhappy Families shall be drawn out into its border
Wrought with the needle with dire sufferings poverty pain & woe
Along the rocky Island & thence throughout the whole Earth.
There shall be the sick Father & his starving Family! there
The Prisoner in the stone Dungeon & the Slave at the Mill
I will have Writings written all over it in Human Words
That every Infant that is born upon the Earth shall read
And get by rote as a hard task of a life of sixty years
I will have Kings inwoven upon it, & Councellors & Mighty Men
The Famine shall clasp it together with buckles & Clasps
And the Pestilence shall be its fringe & the War its girdle
To divide into Rahab & Tirzah that Milton may come to our tents
For I will put on the Human Form & take the Image of God
Even Pity & Humanity but my Clothing shall be Cruelty
And I will put on Holiness as a breastplate & as a helmet
And all my ornaments shall be of the gold of broken hearts
And the precious stones of anxiety & care & desperation & death
And repentance for sin & sorrow & punishment & fear
To defend me from thy terrors O Orc! my only beloved!

Orc answerd. Take not the Human Form O loveliest. Take not
Terror upon thee! Behold how I am & tremble lest thou also
Consume in my Consummation; but thou maist take a Form
Female & lovely, that cannot consume in Mans consummation
Wherefore dost thou Create & Weave this Satan for a Covering
When thou attemptest to put on the Human Form, my wrath                                                   Burns to the top of heaven against thee in Jealousy & Fear.                                                         Then I rend thee asunder, then I howl over thy clay & ashes                                                    When wilt thou put on the Female Form as in times of old                                                     With a Garment of Pity & Compassion like the Garment of God                                                  His garments are long sufferings for the Children of Men                                                            Jerusalem is his Garment & not thy Covering Cherub O lovely                                          Shadow of my delight who wanderest seeking for the prey.[v]

You will recall, I hope, that I summarized Derek Attridge’s description of English prosody, as laid out in The rhythms of English poetry[vi], back in in verse # 31 : dark Satanic mills.  Well, actually I let John Creaser do it, and commented that Attridge ignores Blake’s experiments with a long line in his later poems.  So, to repeat:  Creaser begins by summarizing Attridge’s description of “the prevailing norms” of speech rhythm in English:

Fundamental to the rhythm of English speech are (1) isochrony — the tendency, allowing for sense “breathings,” to perceive stressed syllables as falling at equal intervals of time; and (2) duple movement — the tendency for stressed and unstressed syllables to alternate.[vii]

Here is an attempt, given the resources of WordPress, to show these tendencies in Blake.  First, from his description:

The Mundane Shell, is a vast Concave Earth: an immense
Hardend shadow of all things upon our Vegetated Earth
Enlarg’d into dimension & deform’d into indefinite space,
In Twenty-seven Heavens and all their Hells; with Chaos
And Ancient Night; & Purgatory. It is a cavernous Earth                                                            Of labyrinthine intricacy, twenty-seven folds of opakeness
And finishes where the lark mounts; here Milton journeyed

Note how in the first line I have indicated that, following “vast,” because of the t-k combination, I hear the stresses as “a vast Concave Earth.” This illustrates demotion (in Creaser’s words “when three stresses occur in sequence, careful utterance gives the second the time of a stress, but slightly less emphasis” [viii]).  That is, “cave” takes a lesser emphasis because it is preceded and followed by stressed syllables.  In the third line above, “Enlarg’d into dimension” demonstrates its opposite, promotion, the tendency that, “in a sequence of three non-stresses, the second is given a little extra weight or time,” [ix] in this case “to” picking up a little stress.

One final example will have to do, from the Shadowy Female’s denunciation:

I will lament over Milton in the lamentations of the afflicted
My Garments shall be woven of sighs & heart broken lamentations
The misery of unhappy Families shall be drawn out into its border
Wrought with the needle with dire sufferings poverty pain & woe
Along the rocky Island & thence throughout the whole Earth
There shall be the sick Father & his starving Family! there
The Prisoner in the stone Dungeon & the Slave at the Mill
I will have Writings written all over it in Human Words
That every Infant that is born upon the Earth shall read
And get by rote as a hard task of a life of sixty years
I will have Kings inwoven upon it, & Councellors & Mighty Men

There may well be an example of pairing in these lines, but I can’t find it.  That is because pairing is, again in Creaser’s words, the phenomenon that “where only two stresses are adjacent and demotion is therefore impossible, an iambic line is thrown off balance; the imbalance is kept as brief as possible by immediately following or preceding the pair of stresses with two (and only two) non-stresses” [x].  That’s, of course, because Blake is not writing in an iambic meter — but, because he is writing verse in English, and because the rhythms of English poetry are based on the rhythms of English speech, the isochrony and duple movement can be detected.

But hold on, I hear you say:  so what are Blake’s organizing metric principles?

Your turn


[i] “Enigmatic Dickinson Revealed Online” by Jennifer Schuessler, published October 22, 2013 in the New York Times, and accessed at  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/23/books/enigmatic-dickinson-revealed-online.html, on 24 October 2013.

[ii] See, for example, the “Structure and Syntax” section of the article on Dickinson at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emily_Dickinson, accessed 24 October 2013

[iii] Blake / Peter Ackroyd. – London : Folio Society, 2008,  p. 13.  Milton, incidentally, was born in Bread Street in 1608, according to a City of London plaque posted in that street, and visible in the Wikipedia article John Milton, accessed 23 October 2013.

[iv] 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.

[v] 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, pp. 26 (which reproduces plate 16 of copy B of the engraved poem) and 177 (which reproduces plate e, or plate 20 of copy D of the engraved poem), from which I have made this transcription, following the lead of the Eassons in inserting the text of plate e following the text of plate 16.  Their textual note is more informative than I have space to be, but you can surely consult it; asserting that they are producing a reading text, not a definitive one, they say “Our commentary on Milton is based on a ‘complete’ copy of 51 plates; however, no one of the four existing copies has all 51.”

[vi] The rhythms of English poetry / Derek Attridge. – London and New York : Longman, 1982, p. vii.

[vii] “Prosody” / John Creaser, pp. 297-301 in The Milton encyclopedia / edited by Thomas N. Corns. New Haven : Yale University Press, c2012.  The quotation above is from pp. 297-8.

[viii] Ibid., p. 298.

[ix] Ibid., p. 298.

[x] Ibid., p. 298.

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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4 Responses to in verse # 34 : a different Blake

  1. Th. says:

    .

    This is a bit off topic, but I just saw a really marvelous pen illustration of Dante Blake did. These questions of authorial ancestry delight me.

    • dennis clark says:

      Blake in his work as an illustrator and draftsman surely earned the right to explore in the prophecies the depths of his intuitive grasp of things spiritual. I’ve said it before, but Scott Card certainly got it right when he had Blake come to America to serve as the spiritual guide to Alvin Maker.

      And Blake, I think, is a good example of what Joseph Smith accomplished in his long-line dictation — but that’s a topic for another post, perhaps still six months off.

      Dennis

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