Tag Archives: songs of experience

“The Voice of the Ancient Bard” by William Blake

AncientBard

Youth of delight come hither.
And see the opening morn,
Image of truth new born.
Doubt is fled & clouds of reason
Dark disputes & artful teazing.
Folly is an endless maze,
Tangled roots perplex her ways.
How many have fallen there!
They stumble all night over bones of the dead
And feel they know not what but care;
And wish to lead others when they should be led

This poem is the last in The Songs of Innocence and Experience and for me connects the two collections, creating concentric circles. On one hand, it seems to circle back to the beginning of the Songs of Experience, where the Introduction opens with “Hear the voice of the Bard!” But it also appears to circle back to the Songs of Innocence, promising a return to the joys of youth, a rebirth where one is once again freed from the doubt, despair, and torment that dominates the state of experience in the cycle of spiritual development.

The image of the maze and the tangled roots symbolize the twisted pathways which the soul must follow as it traverses the various stages of development. As Blake points out: “How many have fallen there!” It is a difficult journey that the soul must take, and many do not make it to the point where they are returned to the Edenic state of innocence and connection with the divine source.

The last thing I would like to expound upon is the image of the “clouds of reason” as one of the pitfalls on the journey. While we are prone to consider reason to be one of the gifts of human consciousness, it is also something that sometimes obscures our ability to live life creatively and spiritually. We are familiar with the myth that consuming the fruit form the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was the cause of humanity’s fall from grace. We should always be vigilant to not allow reason to cloud our ability to see and experience life’s beauty, or allow reason to cloud our understanding of the divine source from which we all have come.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts and I hope your day is filled with blessings and inspiration!

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“The School-Boy” by William Blake

SchoolBoy

I love to rise in a summer morn,
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the skylark sings with me:
O what sweet company!

But to go to school in a summer morn, –
O it drives all joy away!
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.

Ah then at times I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour;
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning’s bower,
Worn through with the dreary shower.

How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring!

O father and mother if buds are nipped,
And blossoms blown away;
And if the tender plants are stripped
Of their joy in the springing day,
By sorrow and care’s dismay, –

How shall the summer arise in joy,
Or the summer fruits appear?
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,
Or bless the mellowing year,
When the blasts of winter appear?

As spring gets ready to move into summer, this poem came to life for me as I read it, and I connected with it on a deep level. My garden is alive and flourishing; there is a bird’s nest with baby birds woven into the vines of my front stoop; the kids in the neighborhood are outside playing. This all brings back the joy and excitement that was summer in my youth.

In this poem, Blake addresses the tendency of educational systems during his time to crush a child’s spirit of joy, wonder, and creativity, preparing that child for a life of conformity and the mundane. The image that comes to mind is from Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” I would like to think that this is just a dark page from our past, but that is not the case. When I read about cuts to funding of the arts in schools, the banning of books from school libraries, the tendency to impose constant structure on children as opposed to allowing them to explore through play, I am sadly reminded that society is still attempting to impose conformity on the young.

The other night, I watched “Dead Man” with my daughter (if you are a fan of William Blake and have not seen this film, I recommend watching it). She said she liked the film but felt she didn’t get a lot of the references because she was not familiar with Blake’s poems. I’ll have to share this one with her. I suspect she will relate to it.

Thanks for reading, and here are a couple short videos that you might enjoy.


 

Pink Floyd: Another Brick in the Wall

Scene from the film “Dead Man”

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“To Tirzah” by William Blake

ToTirzah

Whate’er is Born of Mortal Birth
Must be consumed with the Earth
To rise from Generation free:
Then what have I to do with thee?

The Sexes sprung from Shame & Pride,
Blow’d in the morn, in evening died;
But Mercy chang’d Death into Sleep;
The Sexes rose to work & weep.

Thou, Mother of my Mortal part,
With cruelty didst mould my Heart,
And with false self-deceiving tears
Didst bind my Nostrils, Eyes, & Ears:

Didst close my Tongue in senseless clay,
And me to Mortal Life betray.
The Death of Jesus set me free:
Then what have I to do with thee?

In order to fully grasp this poem, there are a couple religious references which should be explained. First, the name Tirzah “is derived from The Song of Solomon vi.4, and signifies physical beauty, that is, sex.” (Geoffrey Keynes) Also, the words on the robe of the aged figure offering the water of life in the engraving are “the second half of St. Paul’s sentence, I Corinthians xv.44: ‘It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body’.” (Keynes)

In the image associated with this poem, there are two women holding the body of the young man, who is the speaker in the poem. My impression is that the two women symbolize two aspects of the divine feminine: the mother and the maiden. I sense conflict in the speaker, who may be experiencing maternal love as well as sexual attraction. The mother’s name, Tirzah, is associated with sexual beauty. I’m sure Freudians would agree with this interpretation. But there is also a sense of anger directed towards the mother. The speaker feels he is a spiritual being and through childbirth is now trapped within a physical body, hence bound to the earth and to corporeal existence. At least until he dies. As such, he relates to Christ. When Christ died, his soul was restored to the divine. Hence, when the speaker dies, he also will be “raised a spiritual body” and become one with god.

This is certainly a psychologically challenging poem. Does one have to sever parental connections in order to live a spiritual life? How did Christ feel about his mother? Does the Oedipus myth tie into all this? Personally, this poem just stirs questions for me. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please feel free to post comments below. Thanks, and keep reading challenging texts.

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“A Little Girl Lost” by William Blake

ALittleGirlLost

Children of the future Age,
Reading this indignant page;
Know that in a former time
Love! sweet Love! was thought a crime.

In the Age of Gold,
Free from winters cold:
Youth and maiden bright,
To the holy light,
Naked in the sunny beams delight.

Once a youthful pair
Fill’d with softest care:
Met in garden bright,
Where the holy light,
Had just removed the curtains of the night.

Then, in rising day,
On the grass they play:
Parents were afar:
Strangers came not near:
And the maiden soon forgot her fear.

Tired with kisses sweet
They agree to meet,
When the silent sleep
Waves o’er heavens deep;
And the weary tired wanderers weep.

To her father white
Came the maiden bright:
But his loving look,
Like the holy book,
All her tender limbs with terror shook.

Ona! pale and weak!
To thy father speak:
O the trembling fear!
O the dismal care!
That shakes the blossoms of my hoary hair

I found this poem interesting and somewhat different from most of the poems in the Songs of Innocence and Experience. Blake starts the poem with an introductory stanza where he addresses the poem to the readers of “the future Age.” None of the other poems are addressed in this manner, even though, in “The Little Girl Lost” (a poem similar in title), Blake begins by stating that he has a vision of the future. So there is that parallel between the two poems.

In this poem, Blake presents sexual love as something natural and beautiful between two young people. When the maiden returns home, flush with the glow of love, her father is immediately angered. His thoughts and emotions are controlled by the “holy book,” implying that religious dogma is what dictates his actions more so than compassion and understanding for what his daughter is experiencing.

I referred to the endnotes in my copy of the book to find out more about the maiden’s name—Ona. Geoffrey Keynes, the commentator on my version of the text, asserts that the name is “perhaps the feminine form of One” and may be a “poetic conception of the feminine principle.” I kind of like this interpretation. I view the divine as a dyad, containing masculine and feminine aspects. I would like to think that Blake also recognized the divine feminine as part of the One.

As I read this today, I couldn’t help thinking about the controversy regarding marriage equality and gay rights. I suspect that the “Children of the future Age” will also look back at this time in history and wonder how laws could be considered that deny a person’s right to love another.

Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read my thoughts. Cheers!

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“A Little Boy Lost” by William Blake

ALittleBoyLost

Nought loves another as itself,
Nor venerates another so,
Nor is it possible to Thought
A greater than itself to know:

And Father, how can I love you
Or any of my brothers more?
I love you like the little bird
That picks up crumbs around the door.

The Priest sat by and heard the child;
In trembling zeal he seiz’d his hair,
He led him by his little coat,
And all admired the Priestly care.

And standing on the altar high,
Lo what a fiend is here! said he:
One who sets reason up for judge
Of our most holy Mystery.

The weeping child could not be heard,
The weeping parents wept in vain:
They strip’d him to his little shirt,
And bound him in an iron chain,

And burn’d him in a holy place
Where many had been burn’d before;
The weeping parents wept in vain.
Are such thing done on Albion’s shore?

In this poem, Blake presents us with an image of a boy who is martyred for heretical beliefs. During the first stanza, the boy expresses love for the divine spirit within. He venerates himself because he feels God is inside of him. He also acknowledges that he can never fully understand the essence of God, since God is ineffable and exists beyond the grasp of human thought.

The beginning of the second stanza almost sounds like Cordelia speaking to Lear, but then in the last two lines of that stanza, the boy likens himself to a bird picking up crumbs. I see this as a metaphor for people who follow around priests and pick up only the scraps of wisdom that are doled out to them. I suspect that this is what angers the priest.

The boy is then accused of being “One who sets reason up for judge / Of our most holy Mystery.” On one level, this could be representative of the conflict between scientific inquiry and faith-based church doctrine. But it could also be a reference to Blake’s mythological creation, Urizen. In Blake’s mythology, Urizen is the embodiment of conventional reason and law, and correlates to Satan as expressed by Milton.

The boy is then stripped and bound before being burnt, a punishment too often inflicted upon heretics. In the image accompanying the poem, we see the parents weeping before the flames that engulf their child. Blake also includes an image of ivy vines climbing the side of the page. Ivy has a few symbolic interpretations. It can represent the intertwining between humans and the divine; it can symbolize the indestructible aspect of the human soul and consciousness; and finally, because ivy is poisonous, it could be a symbol of either vengeance or the toxic aspect of organized religion.

Blake ends his poem with a question, which I believe he is posing to the reader: “Are such thing done on Albion’s shore?” He is questioning whether such things are still done in England. I think it is a question that is still valid today. Are such things done in any country? Sadly, yes. People are still persecuted, tortured, and killed in some countries based upon their spiritual beliefs. Hopefully we will evolve as a species, and like the boy in this poem, learn to recognize the spark of divine spirit in all human beings.

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“A Poison Tree” by William Blake

PosionTree

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.

And into my garden stole,
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

This is a sobering poem that addresses the negative effects of not expressing your anger and allowing it to fester and grow in secret. In the first stanza, we are presented with two contrasting versions of how the speaker deals with his anger. In the first scenario, the person expresses his anger to his friend in a healthy manner and the result is that the anger goes away. In the second scenario, because the person keeps his anger hidden within, it grows. This is a common occurrence. Generally, when anger is stuffed inside, it tends to turn to resentment, which adds fuel to the wrath that smolders within.

In the second stanza, we see that fear continues to add to the suppressed anger, causing it to grow more. In addition, the protagonist now begins exhibiting signs of deception, smiling at his secret enemy while quietly plotting his revenge. In the third stanza, his silent anger finally bears fruit, the result of which is the death of his foe in the final stanza.

As is often the case with a Blake poem, there are other layers of symbolism woven in. This poem is no exception. I suspect that Blake also intended the speaker of the poem to represent Satan. Satan is certainly depicted as a being “with soft deceitful wiles.” And the apple is a definite reference to the Eden myth, where Adam and Eve are tempted to eat the forbidden fruit. Essentially, eating of the fruit in the Garden poisons the minds of the two archetypal humans.

Finally, it is worth meditating on the image that Blake incorporates with this poem. Beneath the tree is the outstretched foe. The positioning of the body resembles a crucifixion image. I think it could be argued that the foe beneath the tree is Christ, who was not only killed on the cross, but was suffering another symbolic death as the Industrial Age led many people to abandon Christ’s teachings for science and technology. Remember, the apple is also a symbol associated with Sir Isaac Newton.

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“Infant Sorrow” by William Blake

InfantSorrow

My mother groand! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt.
Helpless, naked, piping loud;
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

Struggling in my father’s hands,
Striving against my swaddling bands;
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mother’s breast.

For a short poem of only eight lines, there is a lot going on here and there are multiple ways that this poem can be interpreted. First, we can take the poem at face value. During the Industrial Revolution at a time when poverty was rampant, having another mouth to feed would have certainly been a hardship for two parents. In addition, I can only suspect that the infant mortality rate was quite high, which would add another level of sorrow for a child.

There are some images that lead me to consider another interpretation of this poem. In the first stanza, the baby is described as “a fiend hid in a cloud.” And in the second stanza, we have images of bondage and struggling against the father. This leads me to wonder if the infant in this poem is a symbol for Lucifer, an angel who struggled against god, was cast down into this “dangerous world,” and is ultimately bound here. If one considers Lucifer to be another manifestation of the Prometheus myth, then the images of bondage definitely work to support this idea.

Finally, there is one other possible interpretation; that the man and the woman are Adam and Eve, and the infant is their first-born son, Cain. Being the first human born into the world according to Judeo-Christian belief, he would have been born into a world infinitely more dangerous than Eden. Cain would ultimately murder his brother, Abel, and spend the rest of his days in sorrow. It is also worth noting that Adam and Eve are depicted as weeping and mourning the death of Abel, so the imagery of the groaning mother and weeping father can be tied into this interpretation.

Blake’s poems are so rich and fascinating; I am always in awe at how he managed to include so much in so few words. Hope you enjoyed this post. Have a great and inspired day!!

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“The Human Abstract” by William Blake

HumanAbstract

 Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we;

And mutual fear brings peace;
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears:
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Catterpillar and Fly,
Feed on the Mystery.

And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.

The Gods of the earth and sea
Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain

This is definitely one of the more mystical poems in the Songs of Experience. In Blake’s illustration for this poem, we see Urizen, the supreme god in Blake’s mythological pantheon, struggling to free himself from the bonds that hold him to the earth. I see this as symbolic for the personal struggle that we all face, trying to free ourselves from worldly trappings so we can elevate our consciousness and actualize the divine spirit within us all.

In the first two stanzas, Blake asserts that nothing can exist without its opposite. There can be no good without evil. There must always be a balance in order for things to exist in this universe.

In the third stanza, we see Urizen shedding tears which become the seeds from which grows the Tree of Mystery. Urizen, being the creator of all existence, understands that everything must have its opposite and mourns the lot of humanity, which will eternally grapple with fear, cruelty, and hatred. From Urizen’s tears the roots of the Tree of Mystery grow. The Tree of Mystery is Blake’s equivalent to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The tree bears fruits which are both good and evil, and as we see in the fifth stanza, the fruits of evil are certainly the most tempting.

In the fourth and fifth stanzas, Blake mentions three creatures: catterpillar, fly, and raven. These are symbols for the church and its priests, who feed on the leaves of the Tree of Mystery, who nest and hide within its branches, but have no understanding of the roots, or the hidden aspects. Blake is asserting that following church dogma will ultimately prevent you from discovering the secret to the divinity within you and the mystery of all creation.

I personally find the final stanza in the poem to be the most fascinating. Just like the biblical Tree of Knowledge, Blake’s Tree of Mystery is also hidden. “The Gods of the earth and sea” which he mentions I interpret to be humans, who have dominion over the earth. We have a tendency to seek outside ourselves for the truth, believing that the answers to the ultimate mystery must exist somewhere else. But this is not the case. The Tree of Mystery grows and is hidden within the human subconscious. It is the one place where too many of us fail to look, and hence the search for truth is often in vain.

This poem is a great introduction to Blake’s more complex metaphysical poetry. I encourage you to read it a few times and contemplate it. I’ll definitely be covering Blake’s deeper metaphysical poems once I complete all of the Songs of Experience.

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“London” by William Blake

LondonBlake

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

This poem is a strong criticism against government and corporations. In the first two lines, Blake describes the London streets and the Thames as both being “charter’d.” It’s not clear whether this is a political or a business charter. What is clear is that he feels all of London is owned and controlled, and that humans are suffering as a result. My personal feeling is that Blake was referring to both the government and the corporations, both of which held an oppressive hold on the citizens during that period.

In the second stanza, we have the image of “mind-forg’d manacles.” For me, this is the most powerful metaphor in the poem. On one hand, it symbolizes the mental oppression inflicted upon individuals by a repressive society, where a person’s creativity and intellectual freedom are restricted. But I also see this as self-inflicted bondage, too. We are all slaves to our own thoughts, fears, and obsessions. It is most often our own thoughts that keep us trapped in our misery. If we could just free our minds from fear and resentment, we would find the freedom and courage to become fully enlightened individuals.

The final stanza was the most challenging for me. After reading it several times and thinking about it, I believe that Blake is describing poor, young women who are forced into a life of prostitution, likely because they had sex out of wedlock and got pregnant, which would be the “youthful Harlots curse.” I suspect that these women were often visited by married men, who would then contract venereal infections, such as syphilis, which they passed on to their unsuspecting wives. As a result, the marriage bed becomes a coffin; sex ultimately leads to death.

This is an extremely dark and viscerally wrenching poem. There is no glimmer of hope in here. In fact, even God appears weary and sick. At the top of the illustration, God is being led through the London streets by a boy. God appears hunched, ailing, about to die. Essentially, government and industrial society is not only killing humanity, but is also destroying the Divine spirit.

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“The Little Vagabond” by William Blake

LittleVagabond

Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold;
But the Alehouse is healthy, & pleasant, and warm.
Besides, I can tell where I am use’d well;
Such usage in heaven will never do well.

But, if at the Church they would give us some Ale,
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,
We’d sing and we’d pray all the livelong day,
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray.

Then the Parson might preach, and drink, & sing,
And we’d be as happy as birds in the spring;
And modest dame Lurch, who is always at church,
Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.

And God, like a father, rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as He,
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the Barrel,
But kiss him, & give him both drink and apparel.

On the surface, this seems like a poem that criticizes the Church for its doctrine of austerity. The speaker asserts that if the Church would be more festive that it would attract more followers. While this is a perfectly legitimate interpretation, I see other symbolism buried within the verse.

Firstly, I see this as a pagan song. The speaker is addressing the Mother, with a capital M. It is a sign of reverence. We also have images of ale and bonfires, which are common in pagan rituals. It is also worth noting that the Christian god is not referred to as the Father, but instead he is “like a father.”

The other thing that struck me was the illustration. At the top, God is huddled with a naked male figure. In the last two lines of the poem, we have an image of God reconciling with the devil and offering him “both drink and apparel.” I believe that this image atop the illustration is God and Lucifer together, especially since the naked figure’s skin is tinted red. Also worth noting is the position of the two figures; it is almost as if they are forming a yin/yang symbol. One could say that the two are not in conflict, but are opposite energies or archetypes that complement each other, and when brought together create a whole.

This universal symbol of God and Lucifer complementing each other then becomes a symbol for humanity. In order to reach spiritual completeness, we must find a way to balance our positive and negative energies. Both are essential and neither should be denied or excluded. It is only when we find our balance between dark and light, male and female, positive and negative, conscious and subconscious, that we will become fully realized beings.

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