Friday, May 29, 2009

Songs of Innocence and Experience, by William Blake


I know, I'm very purply in my prose when I talk about books, and I have a tendency to say everything is beautiful. I know this probably takes away from the impact of when I really find something life-changingly perfect. Do not let my larkety-la-ti-da writing style in reviews, however, stop you from putting down whatever you're reading, and immediately adding this precious book to the store of books you've read.

I can honestly say that, if the other things William Blake wrote are as beautiful and honest as this book, that he will be the first male poet to sit in the circle of my heart with Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, E.B. Browning, et al. This book is an image of what poetry ought to be, this book is, when I wish that modern writing would remember what it means to be vulnerable, the book that I would beggingly throw before the writers of the world.

I read this book in one day, it doesn't take very long. The book is divided into two sections, Songs of Innocence in the first half and of Experience in the second. The first half is poems that are the purest palest, most childlike of poems, pastoral in the dearest sense of the word - I have to tell you, honestly, if the book had only been this half, it would have been lovely, but imperfect. The second half was these songs that were... well, it was strange. Let me give you an example:


I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And 'Thou shalt not' writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

But, then, the fascinating thing is, that most of the poems hearken back directly to the poems in the Songs of Innocence - sometimes they even have the same titles. Like this:

THE DIVINE IMAGE (From Innocence)

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
All pray in their distress,
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
Is God our Father dear;
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
Is man, His child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart;
Pity, a human face;
And Love, the human form divine:
And Peace the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine:
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew.
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.

A DIVINE IMAGE (Experience)

Cruelty has a human heart,
And Jealousy a human face;
Terror the human form divine,
And Secrecy the human dress.

The human dress is forged iron,
The human form a fiery forge,
The human face a furnace sealed,
The human heart its hungry gorge.

The poems all interrelate, and they all tell this story, in a way that is at once extermely simple to comprehend and deep so far beyond my real understanding that I could study it for the rest of my life. The poems in this book - no the book itself, because the poems are so much more empty outside their context - have the sort of power that scripture should have. Reading these poems, I felt this sudden, overpowering sense of ... I don't even know what! This is, without a doubt, I can unabashedly say, the best book I've read in at least 10 years. And I'm only 29. The. Best. Book. HAnds down. I cannot write things that will make you understand how beautiful it is, all I can do is beat you over the head with it, so you go read it. Seriously. Even if you hate poetry, even if you've never read a book of poems in your life, even if you think William Blake is a nutjob, even if you've read it in college and hated it, go close your door for two hours, and read it. Then, come back, and tell me if I'm just crazy, or if this book was great. OK, shutting up now. Sorry.


Amanda said...

If you can get me tempted to read poetry, it's got to be good. ;)

Rebecca Reid said...

I absolutely love William Blake. And yes, his other work is just a beautiful, albeit a bit different. I studied Blake in a school setting and loved it. And then a few months ago, I bought The Norton Critical Edition of his poetry and illustrations and I've just been itching to read it. I think you've just moved it up my TBR queue. :)

Mish said...

Neat the way it's laid out, but don't think Blake is my cuppa tea. *ducks blow*