This Old Poem #69:
William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/1/03

  Critics of the TOP series whine that I never go after Dead White Males. Hmmm….my 1st 2 TOPs were on W.B. Yeats & T.S. Eliot….& since then I’ve done TOP essays on James Joyce, Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost, & John Keats, among others. Nonetheless, I still get annoying nitpickers. OK- here’s another- Billy Blake. & not only is he a true DWM, but he was absolutely nuts! As well as a great poet. Yet, even he wrote some shit. But it’s not the shit I’m going after this time- that would be too easy. I’m going after a pretty good poem that could be a bit better with just a little nipping & tucking.
  But, in case you’ve never heard of the mad poet & engraver- here’s his bio: he was born in London on November 28th, 1757, the son of James Blake, a hosier, & his wife Catherine. In his youth young Billy was prone to having delusions- or ‘visions’- at 4 he claimed to have met God. 5 years later, while frolicking with playmates in a wooded area, he saw a tree fill up with light, & then become a band of angels. His parents were worried but refused to let him go to public school- he was home-taught; save for attending art school at 10- when his parents sought to encourage his artistic nature. By his teens he had turned to poetry as well; & by 14 he was an engraver’s apprentice. He taught himself Greek, Latin, Hebrew, & Italian, so he could read Classical works in their original language. In his youth WB was enthralled with the Classical world.
  At only 15 he got married to an illiterate girl- Catherine Boucher. WB taught her, & his younger brother Robert, to read & write, as well as engraving, drafting, & the arts. They never procreated. In 1784 WB opened a printers shop, but he soon went broke, & for the rest of his life WB scraped by, working as an engraver & illustrator. In 1787 Robert died. WB had the most transfiguring vision of the 100s he’d had in his life. He saw Robert’s spirit rise through the ceiling, singing upward with joy, & vowing to return to WB, to bring him knowledge of the beyond. WB claimed the inspiration for his famed series, Songs Of Innocence (1789) & Songs Of Experience (1794). WB also associated with many of top radical thinkers of the day- such Thomas Paine & Mary Wollstonecraft. He repudiated his earlier love of Classicism by asserting that ideals should be constructed not from imitation of nature but from the inner world of the imagination. He believed his poetry could be understood by the layety, but would not sell out to populist impulses to make money. Poets & critics like William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, Robert Southey, & Samuel Taylor Coleridge deemed WB a genius- albeit an insane genius. WB died in poverty in 1827.
  WB basically had 2 modes- the short, piquant lyrics that were exemplified in the Songs series, & the long, prophetic works which, while loaded with great images & lines, were also larded with nonsense. Here are 2 examples- the 1st a lone lyric & the 2nd a Song Of Innocence:


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 Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born Infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

The 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.
Oh, what sweet company!

But to go to school in a summer morn,
Oh! 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?

  Note how the 2 poems both end enigmatically, after poems that have almost a child-like tone to them? Let’s hit the title poem- a poem with a famous opening. But, this poem has often been assumed to have been a deliberate puzzle constructed by WB to entice & confuse readers. Over the years a # of editors have arranged the couplets more ‘thematically’, but I will simply lop off the mediocrities & enhance the poem with concision. 1st the original:

Auguries Of Innocence

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 filled with doves and pigeons
Shudders hell through all its regions.
A dog starved 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 clipped and armed for fight
Does the rising sun affright.
Every wolf's and lion's howl
Raises from hell a human soul.
The wild deer wandering here and there
Keeps the human soul from care.
The lamb misused 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 beloved by men.
He who the ox to wrath has moved
Shall never be by woman loved.
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
Through 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 returned 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 armed 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 labourer'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 mocked 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 plough
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 through 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.

  Wow! 132 lines of coupleted & nonsequitured maxims. Let’s tighten things up with a good trim:

Auguries Of Innocence

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.

The child's toys and the old man's reasons
Are the fruits of the two seasons.
Joy and woe: the soul divine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

Every tear from every eye
Becomes a babe in eternity;
He who replies to words of doubt
Doth put the light of knowledge out.

It is right it should be so:
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know
Through the world we safely go.

  Only 16 lines remain. All the BS with animal metaphors is gone, as is some of the weaker, more bathetic crap. We are left with 4 quatrains. The memorable opening, & then 3 quatrains culled from couplets within the original but woven together. Quatrain 2 picks up on the opening’s twinning of ideas, especially on time, & pairs that with emotions. The next quatrain takes the emotion & intellectualizes it. The last quatrain is a summation, & ends with a very child-like Song Of Innocence feel. Plus it truly augurs innocence- especially in the naïf stance of the speaker of the poem. There were some great lines tossed from the original, but- in truth- the original poem is a well-known mess- with some mediocre rhythms. TOP’s version is a good little poem. ‘Nuff said.

Final Score: (1-100):

William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence: 70
TOP’s Auguries of Innocence: 88

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