There be dragons!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Auguries of Innocence

by
William Blake (1757–1827)


TO see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.
A dove-house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders hell thro’ all its regions.
A dog starv’d at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.
A horse misused upon the road
Calls to heaven for human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain does tear.
A skylark wounded in the wing
A cherubim does cease to sing.
The game-cock clipt and arm’d for fight
Does the rising sun affright.
Every wolf’s and lion’s howl
Raises from hell a human soul
The wild deer, wand’ring here and there,
Keeps the human soul from care.
The lamb misus’d breeds public strife,
And yet forgives the butcher’s knife.
The bat that flits at close of eve
Has left the brain that won’t believe.
The owl that calls upon the night
Speaks the unbeliever’s fright.
He who shall hurt the little wren
Shall never be belov’d by men.
He who the ox to wrath has mov’d
Shall never be by woman lov’d.
The wanton boy that kills the fly
Shall feel the spider’s enmity.
He who torments the chafer’s sprite
Weaves a bower in endless night.
The caterpillar on the leaf
Repeats to thee thy mother’s grief.
Kill not the moth nor butterfly,
For the last judgment draweth nigh.
He who shall train the horse to war
Shall never pass the polar bar.
The beggar’s dog and widow’s cat,
Feed them and thou wilt grow fat.
The gnat that sings his summer’s song
Poison gets from slander’s tongue.
The poison of the snake and newt
Is the sweat of envy’s foot.
The poison of the honey bee
Is the artist’s jealousy.
The prince’s robes and beggar’s rags
Are toadstools on the miser’s bags.
A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.
It is right it should be so;
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro’ the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
The babe is more than swaddling bands;
Throughout all these human lands
Tools were made, and born were hands,
Every farmer understands.
Every tear from every eye
Becomes a babe in eternity;
This is caught by females bright,
And return’d to its own delight.
The bleat, the bark, bellow, and roar,
Are waves that beat on heaven’s shore.
The babe that weeps the rod beneath
Writes revenge in realms of death.
The beggar’s rags, fluttering in air,
Does to rags the heavens tear.
The soldier, arm’d with sword and gun,
Palsied strikes the summer’s sun.
The poor man’s farthing is worth more
Than all the gold on Afric’s shore.
One mite wrung from the lab’rer’s hands
Shall buy and sell the miser’s lands;
Or, if protected from on high,
Does that whole nation sell and buy.
He who mocks the infant’s faith
Shall be mock’d in age and death.
He who shall teach the child to doubt
The rotting grave shall ne’er get out.
He who respects the infant’s faith
Triumphs over hell and death.
The child’s toys and the old man’s reasons
Are the fruits of the two seasons.
The questioner, who sits so sly,
Shall never know how to reply.
He who replies to words of doubt
Doth put the light of knowledge out.
The strongest poison ever known
Came from Caesar’s laurel crown.
Nought can deform the human race
Like to the armour’s iron brace.
When gold and gems adorn the plow,
To peaceful arts shall envy bow.
A riddle, or the cricket’s cry,
Is to doubt a fit reply.
The emmet’s inch and eagle’s mile
Make lame philosophy to smile.
He who doubts from what he sees
Will ne’er believe, do what you please.
If the sun and moon should doubt,
They’d immediately go out.
To be in a passion you good may do,
But no good if a passion is in you.
The whore and gambler, by the state
Licensed, build that nation’s fate.
The harlot’s cry from street to street
Shall weave old England’s winding-sheet.
The winner’s shout, the loser’s curse,
Dance before dead England’s hearse.
Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
We are led to believe a lie
When we see not thro’ the eye,
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.
God appears, and God is light,
To those poor souls who dwell in night;
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.

This one has stuck with me for years since I first read it at Thomas More College. Blake was a mystic, visionary, poet, painter, amateur theologian. His insight into the human heart, and especially the capacity for human cruelty was remarkable. I still puzzle over some of the lines in this poem, intentionally, I'm convinced, made to be ironic contradictions; zen-like; posing a problem or contradiction that forces the mind to see the world differently. What does it mean to "a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild flower"? Not THE world but A WORLD and A HEAVEN. It reminds one of the "little low heavens" in Hopkins' poem. But how does one see A world in a grain of sand? Isn't it just sand? uniform, ordinary, ubiquitous and uninteresting? That's just his point - sand itself, in Blake's view, is a source of awe. Perhaps b/c it ought not to be - nothing ought to be. Why is there stuff? the essential philosophic question. What that opening suggests is that the attitude toward the created world must be one of constant awe and surprise, amazed that there is sand, or anything at all for that matter.

But more so, sand is a metaphor. B/c of it's ordinariness it represents the attitude we hold or ought to hold toward the most important things. If we hold that sand is "nothing more than" building material or the ground beneath our feet haven't we lost the respect that allows us to view our fellow men as important? Viewing sand as a world in itself doesn't preclude seeing building materials, but it does encourage one to see other creations, wildflowers, people, as even more significant still. Thus all of creation is elevated from the mundane; the realm into which we categorize things within our mind and think that we know all there is to know about them. That realm in the mind is limbo, pagan hell - where nothing grows but all is grey and thoroughly known.

Lastly, even sand has a history. Once great stones that shot forth from the fires of volcanoes or fell to earth from the sky; ground by wind, water, weather into sand. It is the stuff from which great monuments are made and to which all monuments descend. It is the stuff of romantic strolls under the moonlight and bloody conflicts on Omaha sector. And ultimately what is man but sand; dust in the wind as Kansas and Bill express it.

That's just the opening.

The rest of the work is one remarkable statement after another. "Each outcry from the hunted Hare / A fibre from the Brain does tear," or "The Lamb misus'd breeds Public strife / And yet forgives the Butcher's Knife," or "The Owl that calls upon the Night / Speaks the Unbelievers fright." Choose your couplet, each one could generate an extensive commentary.

Each one suggests that abuse or cruelty to small things in creation leads to violence and loss on a large scale. I am reminded of the Buddhist monks that sweep the road before them lest they do damage to the littlest creatures. Extreme, perhaps, but such awareness makes for an incredibly clear mind.

This is my favorite line in the piece: "A truth that's told with bad intent / Beats all the Lies you can invent. / It is right it should be so; / Man was made for Joy & Woe; / And when this we rightly know / Thro' the World we safely go." Blake was particularly interested in the juxtaposition of opposites; dark & light, man & woman, good & evil - and held that a proper vision of the world involved both. So do we live in this world with both Joy & Woe? I think so. To know the first is to experience the second. To experience the second is to really know the first. And without the one the other isn't really real. "Joy & Woe are woven fine" and make "A Clothing for the Soul divine." The divine soul, not the human or mortal soul, knows both these qualities, endures both joy and woe - and consequently learns that bringing others to the same (both joy and woe) is the only true path. Contrary to our current penchant for constant joy and little woe; our current long acid trip of happiness which leads to negligence, ignorance, violence, pulling down the true and noble and putting down the real experience of other poeple. "He who mocks the Infant's Faith / Shall be mock'd in Age & Death. / He who shall teach the Child to Doubt / The rotting Grave shall ne'er get out."

Oh and for those of you who are Doors fans, yes Jim Morrison is quoting Blake when he says "Some are Born to sweet delight, / Some are Born to Endless Night."

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