Blake’s Satire and the Reading of Poetry

Yes, William Blake wrote satire too. His longest (yet unfinished) satirical work is “An Island in the Moon,” which is also one of his earliest longer works, written in 1784. It is a ludicrous portrayal of various schools of thought popular during Blake’s time, to highlight their nature and inadequacies as Blake saw them. The title is also significant, because it coincides with a larger theme that pervades Blake’s oeuvre: the isolation of the philosophically abstracted mind from reality.

Blake repeatedly returns to this point throughout his writing – he observed how the mind constructs abstract thought from reality (like an island in a larger sea) and then imposes this system or model of thought upon reality – the tendency then being that the abstraction is mistaken for reality (thinking the island is all). This way of thinking creates an irrelevancy that, despite its narrowness, is believed to be reality, and therefore lived through as though the world operates accordingly. As humans we are complex creatures ever-intermixing actual experience and thought in our own minds as we attempt to understand the world (through language). But when we impose our point of view on the world – and so often we do, and may not even realise it – it is little wonder if the world reciprocates in unexpected, even unpleasant ways, every so often, causing us either more frustrated stubbornness in that view, or, hopefully, a re-evaluation of our schema of life, for the better.

Blake posited that imagination was the true glue that kept mind and reality coinciding. This may sound strange when the predominant model of the universe (even today) is largely Cartesian (containing an objective and a subjective world that, like oil and water, do not really mix). This model has basically been the accepted abstraction for reality for the Modern age.  Imagination, being a subjective phenomena (in this model) had little say in regards to objective truth – truth is that which is measurable (according to Empiricism).

Imagination is creative. It is of a different order of truth than the seeking of truth via objects in the world. Imagination makes its own rules, or applies rules already present – either way is not a constraint for it. Imagination works well with poetry, to create what could be called poetic truths. Through poetry, imagination shapes language in a relationship with both objective and subjective reality for the experiencer of poetry (becoming the emulsifier for the ‘oil and water’ analogy). Poetic truth is relational; meaning we relate our subjective selves to it, by imagining, and we relate it to the objective world, in the same way. Yet even this explanation is an abstraction of the experience of poetry; and it is only in reading poetry that the reader gains an experiential sense of what poetic truth may be.

To delve any deeper into a study of this topic, of what exactly poetic truth is opens many other areas of ongoing discussion in literature and philosophy. This discussion informs the human need for truth, which is why as humans we do such things: it is a necessary part of our existence. The debate on ‘what is truth?’ is immense and ongoing – whether philosophical, empirical,  poetic, or otherwise. It is a debate that continues to evolve and revolve through various ideas, as it has done for all of human history. Its unfinished nature is a good thing, because what would we humans do if we knew the answer to life? It seems the universe always offers more than a final answer, to allow life to explore itself further.

What has this to do with satire? Well, a lot of the search for truth involves philosophical viewpoints, and to these, Blake seemed to gain great satisfaction from mocking those he disagreed with. Satire is a facet of the greater search for truth – it aims to reveal, often amusedly, the fallacies inherent in falsity. Blake satirised others’ views of truth, their character, their opinions on art, among other things. He kept a lot of these private, which must have saved him a great deal of trouble. He comes across as the kind of person who knew when he knew something (or thought he knew it), and took contentment in stating that, if only to himself, to then continue on with some other, more important work – for satirist was not his main occupation.

If you visit the online version of the Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake at the blakearchive.org website (http://erdman.blakearchive.org/), and scroll down the side-menu you will find a section V.I, “Satiric Verses and Epigrams”. There you can read his short satirical writings, gaining a sense of Blake’s quirky satiric language, his strange humour, private rage, playfulness and imagination; along with some of his grander ideas. Some of it requires some background on those he refers to, which you can find in biographies on Blake (for recommendations, see my post here). When reading it, you may like to consider how poetry connects the subjective world of your mind and emotions with the objective world around us.

Is Your Vision Fantasy or Imagination?

William Blake’s oeuvre contains a range of works, which though each is unique, participate for the most part in a common mythology. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion is one such work, a long (100-plate) illustrated poem; actually his magnum opus. Jerusalem explores the process by which humanity (represented by Albion) is restored to a divine culture based in loving relationships, whose arts and sciences are inspired by creative genius.

At one point in the story, the hero-protagonist, Los, who is a blacksmith and artistic genius, becomes roofed in and thereby trapped within the world of the materialistic world-view.  He is now isolated from the Vision of Eternity, no longer able to access this vision as a living experience of communion with the universe, and beyond.

This vision, for Blake and the Romantics in general, is the imagination, which is not the same as fantasy, or fancy, as we might consider such today. Fancy (as it is differentiated by the Romantics) is a private form of imagination, limited within the mind of the individual, which is not imagination proper. This differs from imagination (sometimes written capitalised, Imagination), which is defined by the Romantics as fundamental to the universe, not confined to the private mind of the individual: it is the primal creative power of existence (whether arising from Nature or the Divine), which human beings participate in. This participation is often described as accessible through the power of individual genius. The artist, through their genius, may share in the creative process inherent in the universe itself.

Fancy differs – though is often mistaken for imagination – in that remains within individual images of the personal unconscious, the creations wrought around the individual ego-persona, with all its misconceptions, limitations, and biases. Imagination in contrast is considered universal, broader even than the collective human unconscious . This is the basic difference between imagination and fancy.

So, at the point in Jerusalem (around plate 19) where Los is trapped within the material world, humanity (represented by Albion) withdraws within itself, into the inner, lunar worlds of personal fancy. There Albion meets with Jerusalem, who is his eternal feminine counterpart, though she also trapped within the rock-like material-consciousness, due to the oppression of materialism. The individual imagination has been reduced to personal fantasy.

But Blake’s mythos ends on a high note; it is romantic-comedy, not tragedy. Eventually, when Albion and Jerusalem are both liberated from the reductionist world-view, they merge into the infinite creative imagination as the divine integrated human, and take their place once again in eternity as a single being. Albion becomes the creative will, and Jerusalem, the capacity for loving relationship.

Blake, William. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, copy E, plate 2. 1804-c. 1820. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.