Point of View and Context in Blake's Song
by Robert F. Gleckner
Joseph Wicksteed, the only critic to devote an entire book to Blake's songs, said this about Blake's poem, "My Pretty Rose Tree": it "shows how virtue itself is rewarded only by suspicion and unkindness." And Thomas Wright, Blake's early biographer, commented on the poem as follows:
"'My Pretty Rose Tree,' Blake's nearest approach to humour, may be paraphrased thus: 'I was much taken with a charming flower (girl), but I said to myself, No, It won't do. Besides, I have an equally pretty wife at home. Then, too, what would the world say? On the whole it would be policy to behave myself.' But his wife takes umbrage all the same. The thorns are her jealousy, however, instead of wounding him give him pleasure, for they excuse his inclination for the flower. Moreal: See what comes of being good!"
A flower was offerd to me;
Such a flower as Man never bore,
But I said I've a Pretty Rose-tree,
And I passed the sweet flower o'er.
Then I went to my Pretty Rose-tree:
To tend her by day and by night.
But my Rose turned away with jealousy:
And her thorns were myu only delight.
On the contrary, the moral is that such off-the-mark commentary is what comes of ignoring the context of Blake's songs (that is, whether the poem is a song of innocence or a song of experience) and the point of view from which a given poem is written. "My Pretty Rose Tree" is not about virtue perversely rewarded, nor does it have to do with "policy" or morality in the ordinary sense of those words. Virtue by itself meant nothing to Blake unless clarified and qualified by context: in the state of innocence it is The Divine Image; in experience it is perverted to A Divine Image and The Human Abstract. Real virtue Blake defined in The Marrriage of Heaven and Hell: "No virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules." In "My Pretty Rose Tree" the speaker acts from rules when he refuses the offer of tghe sweet flower. For, as Blake wrote elsewhere,
The speaker in "My pretty Rose Tree" not only has let the moment go, but also has bound to himself a joy. Furthermore, since this is a song of experience about the state of experience, the flower offered the speaker is the opportunity for a joy, a love, an ascent to a higher innocence. We recall that it was not just any flower, but a superb one, "such a flower as Maver never bore." Still, the offer is refused - because the speaker already has a rose-tree. Now, conventionally, this is admirable fidelity; for Blake, however, it is enslavement by what he called the marriage ring. The speaker thus passes up the chance of a spiritual joy (sweet flower) to return tot he limited joy of an earthly relationship (pretty rose-tree). He is sorely tempted - but his desire has fallen subject ot an extrasensual force symbolized by the existence of, and his relationship to, the rose-tree.
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sun rise.
The result, of course, is the speaker's retreat from desire to the only substitute for desire in Urizen's world of experience, duty:
The I went to my Pretty Rose-tree:
To attend her by day and by night.
The last two lines of the poem are the crushing commentary on the whole affair. Virtuous in terms of conventional morality, the speaker is rewarded with disdain and jealousy, ironically the same reaction which would have been forthcoming had the speaker taken the offered flower. It is Blake's trenchant way of showing the "rules" to be inane.
How easily, then, in reading Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience we can ignore Blake's own individual method. Basically that method is simple, its roots living in his concept of states and their symbols. Like many other artists Blake employed a central group of related symbols to form a dominant symbolic pattern; his are the child, the father, and Christ, representing the states of innocence, experience, and a higher innocence. These major symbols provide the context for all the "minor,"contributory symbols in the songs; and my purpose here is to suggest a method of approach that is applicable to all of them -- and this to all the songs.
Each of Blake's two song series (or states aor major symbols) compraises a number of smaller units (or states or symbols), so that the relationship of each unit to the series as a whole might be stated as a kind of progression: from the states of innocence and experience to the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, to each individual song within the series, to the symbols within each song, to the words that give the symbols their existence. Conceivably, ignorance of or indifference to one word prohibits the imaginative perception and understanding of the whole structure. As Blake wrote in the prefaceto Jerusalem, "Every word and every letter is studied and put into its fit place; the terrific numbers are reserved for the terrific parts, the mild and gentle for the mild and gentle parts, and the prossaic for the inferior parts; all are necessary to each other."
For the serious reader of Blake's songs, then, a constant awareness of the context or state in which a poem appears is indispensable; and since each state is made up of many poems, the other poems int hat state must be consulted to grasp the full signifigance of any one poem. Each song out of it's context means a great deal less than Blake expected of his total invention, and occasionally it may be taken to mean something quite different from what he intended. Blake created a system of which innocence and experience are vital parts; to deny to the Songs of Inocence, then, the very background and basic symbology which it helps to make up is as wrong as reading The Rape of the Lock without reference to the epic tradition. Without the system, Blake is the simplest of lyric poets and every child may joy to hear his songs. Yet with very little study the child of innocence can be seen to be radically different from the child of experience, and the mother of innocence scarecely recognizable in experience. The states are seperate, the two contrary states ofthe human soul, and the songs were written not merely for our enjoyment, or even for our edification, but for our salvation.
Closely realted to the necessity of reading each song in terms of its state is the vital importance of point of view. Often it is unobtrusive, but many time [a faithful interpretation of the poem depends] upon a correct determination of speaker and perspective. Blake himself suggests this by by his organization of the songs into series, Innocence introduced and sung by the piper, Experience by the Bard. Superficially there seems to be little to distinguish one from the other since the piper clearly exhibits imaginative vision and the Bard "Present, Past, & Future sees." yet for each, the past, present, and future are diffrent: for the piper the past can only be the primal unity, for the present is innocence and the immediate future is experience; for the Bard the past is innocence, the present experience, the future a higher innocence. It is natural, then, that the piper's point of view is prevailing happy; he is conscious of the child's essential divinity and assured of his present protection. But into that joyous contect the elements of experience constantly insinuate themselves sothat the note of sorrow is never completely absent from the piper's pipe. In experience, on the other hand, the Bard's voice is solemn and more deeply resonant, for the high-pitched joy of innocence is now only a memory. Wihtin this gloom, though, lies the ember which can leap into a flame at any moment to light the way to higher innocence. Yet despite this difference direction of their vision, both singers are imaginative, are what Blake called the poetic or prophetic character. And though one singer uses "mild and gentle numbers" and the other more "terrific" tones, both see the imaginative (and symbolic) significance of all the activity in the songs. The inexplicit, Blake said, "rouzes the facilities to act." The reader of Blake, then, must rouse his faculties to consider this imaginative point of view always, no matter who is speaking or seeing or acting in a poem.
Both singers are of course William Blake. And since he, or they, sing all the songs, [an understanding of] whether they are identifiable or not with a character in a poem contributes most importantly to the total meaning of the poem. To take an extreme example, in "The LIttle Vagabond" of Songs of Experience there are four points of view: that of the mother, who is now out of her element and can no longer protect her child as she did in Songs of Innocence; that of the parson, who is part of the major symbol of experience, father-priest-king; that of the vagabond himself, child of experience, not the carefree, irresponsible, thoughtless child of innocence; and that of the Bard, through whose vision each of the other points of view can be studied and evaluated. Wihtout an awareness of this complexity in "The Little Vagabond" the poem dissipates into sentimental drivel. Another good example is "Holy Thursday" of Songs of Innocence.
From a conventional point of view it is thoughtful and kind of the "wise guardians of the poor" to run charity schools and to take the children occasionally to St. Paul's to give thanks for all their so-called blessings. But from the piper's point of view (and Blake's of course) the children clearly are disciplined, regimented, marched in formation to the church in the uniforms of their respective schools - mainly to advertise the charatible souls of their supposed guardians. The point here (seen only through the piper's vision) is that in the state of innocence there is, or ought to be, no discipline, no regimentation, no marching, no uniforms, and no guardians - merely free, uninhibited, irresponsible, thoughtless play on the echoing green. Accordingly the children in Holy Thursday assert and preserve their essential innocence, not by going to church, but by freely and spontaneously, "like a mighty wind," raising to "heaven the voice of song." This simple act raises them to a level far above their supposed benefactors, who are without vision, without innocence, without love: "Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor." The irony is severe, but lost upon us unless we are aware of context and point of view.
As a final example consider the "Introduction" to Songs of Experience. The main difficulty here seems to be Blake's chaotic punctuation adn the ambiguity it causes. Stanzas 1,3, and 4 seem to be an invitation to Earth to arise from the evil darkness and reassume the light of its prelapsarian state. Such an orthodox Christian reading, however, is possible only if we forget (1) that this is a Song of Experience, and (2) that the singer of these songs is the Bard, not God of a priest. In similar fashion, while ignoring the context or the point of view, one might quickly point out the obvious reference in stanze 1 to Genesis iii, and forget that the speaker in that chapter is the Old Testament God, Jehova, the cruel lawgiver and vengeful tyrant who became in Blake's cosmos the father-priest-king image. And finally, the Holy Word in Genesis walked in the garden not in the "evening dew" but in the "cool of day," not to weep and forgive but to cast out and curse his children, to bind them to the soil, and place woman in a postition of virtual servitude to man. In view of this, tf the second stanza is read as a clause modifying "Holy Word," it is either hopelessly contradictory or devastatingly ironic.
Blake himself hints at the correct reading immediately by means of the ambiguity of the first stanza. There are actually two voices in the poem, the Bard's ("Hear the voice of the Bard"). and the Holy Word's ("Calling the lapsed soul"): and the second stanza, because of its apparently chaotic punctuation, must be read as modifying both voices. The last two stanzas are the words of both voices, perfectly in context when the dual purpose of the poem is recognized. Only in this way can the poem be seen for what it is, an introduction to the state and the songs of experience, in which the Holy Word of Jehovah is hypocritical, selfish, and jealous, thinking and acting in terms of the physical phenomena of the day and night and the earthly morality of rewards and punishments. The Bard, mortal but prophetically imaginative, thinks and acts by eternal time and according to eternal values.
But how does one discover the all-important point of view in Blake's songs? One way is to observe the reactions of various characters to the same symbolic act, object, or character, for both the characters and the symbols ultimately resolve themselves into aspects of the major symbol governing that particular poem. Thus the mother of Songs of Innocence is symbolic in that her protection of the child contributes to the overall picture of the child as a major symbol of the state of innocence. In addition, many of Blake's symbols are recurrent, so that once a symbol's basic significance is revealed in a kind of archtypal context, each successive context adds association to association within the song series. When the beadle's wand appears in the first stanza of "Holy Thursday" of Innocence, for example, its immediate connotation is authority. But since a beadle wields the symbol, it is also religious authority, the organized church, instiutional religion. It also represents an act of restraint which forces the children to act according to rule rather than impulse. The wand is posed to the warmth of young, energetic, exuberant innocence. And finally, it suggests the worldly, non-innocent concept of duty (and its corollary, harm), the duty of worship which clashes with all of Blake's ideas of freedom and spontaneity. But all of this, it will be said, strongly suggests the world of experience, and "Holy Thursday" is a Song of Innocence; the overall point of view is the piper's. The point to be made here is simply this. If we do not read the poem as a Song of Innocence, about the state of innocence and its major symbol, the joyous child, we can read it as a rather pleasant picture of nicely dressed charity children being lead to church by a gentle beadle to sing hymns, or as a terrible view of unfortunate, exploited charity children under the thumb of their elders. And we would not see that despite the outward appearance the children are innocent, essentially free and happy, as they spontaneously sing their songs. Without an awareness of context the symbols do not work as Blake intended them to, and the song becomes a fairly inconsequential bit of sentimental social comment.
Considering, then, the care Blake took with point of view, ecurring symbols, and symbolic action, we can see that gradually many of Blake's characters merge. The final products of these mergers are what I have called the major symbols. Kindred points of view tend to unite the holders of those points of view; characters who are asasociated continually with the same or similar symbols tend to melt into one another; and a similar pattern of action reveals a fundamental affinity among the actors. In these ways the significanc and value of any one character in any one song are intensified and expanded beyond the immediate context. The physical identity may shift, but the symbolic calue remains constant - or better, is constantly enriched. When the beadle's wand in "Holy Thursday" is recognized as part of the basic scepter motif, the beadle's identity, while being retained as representative of church law, merges with that of Tiriel, say, and father - and ultimately with the "selfish father of men" in "Earth's Answer," the pebble in "The Clod and the Pebble," the "cold and usurous hand" of "Holy Thursday," God in "The Chimney Sweeper," the mother, parson, adn "Dame Lurch" in "The Little Vagabond," "Cruelty," "Humility," and the "Human Brain" in "The Human Abstract," and Tirzah in "To Tirzah." Wihtin the identity are inherent all the other identities which combine to make up the major symbol of the context. The priests of "The Garden of Love" may bind with briars love and desire, but they do so because they are selfish, fatherly, cold and usurous, worldly, cruel, humble, hypocritical, and so forth.
One serious question remains: how does one distinguish among all these characters, or are they all precisely alike and hence redundant? Professor Mark Schorer answers the question this way - I know of no better [answer]:"The point is," he says, "that the individuality of these creations lies not in their rich diversity but in the outline that seperates them from their backgrounds." That is, each individual identity in it specific context is . . . [an identity as] a part of the whole context and [identical with] the whole of which it is a part. Both the priest of "The Garden of Love" and the flower in "My Pretty Rose Tree" are self-sufficient for some understanding of these two poems. Blake simply asked his reader to do more than merely understand: that, he said, is a "corporeal" function. He wanted them to imagine as he imagined, to see as he saw, even to recreate as he created. Only then does his method make sense, only then can the individual songtake its rightful place as a song of innocance or [a] song of experience.
Taken from Blake:
A Collection of Critical Essays
Edited by Northrop Frye