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 (https://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.

Spectres, Shadows, Emanations, and Eternals

To understand William Blake’s writing is both extremely simple and entirely challenging. It all depends on which parts of his work you read. He has many types of poems. Songs of Innocence is the best entry point I would recommend. Then Songs of Experience, followed by his other shorter poems. You can read his biography – there’s a number of them around (Peter Ackroyd’s Blake is good for a general audience; G. E. Bentley’s The Stranger from Paradise is a recommended academic biography). Then there’s Blake’s songs, his plays and stories, his epigrams and annotations, and his letters – as well as a miscellanea of other works.

Then there are his illuminated books. These are where it becomes challenging. The Blake Archive is the best online source for these. And if you can’t visit a GLAM (gallery, library, archive, or museum) building that has displays of his original prints, you may be able to find a book containing them – I recommend David Bindman’s William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books. And if you’re seriously wanting to study Blake, a copy of Erdman’s The Complete Prose and Poetry of William Blake is a must. (The Blake Archive also has Erdman’s text on-line.)

So why is it challenging to study these illuminated works? Here’s a sample, chosen largely at random from Blake’s Milton:

Daughters of Beulah! Muses who inspire the Poet’s Song,
Record the journey of immortal Milton thro’ you Realms
Of terror & mild moony luster, in soft sexual delusions
Of varied beauty, to delight the wanderer and repose
His burning thirst & descending down the Nerves of my right arm
From out the Portals of my Brain, where by your ministry
The Eternal Great Humanity Divine planted his Paradise,
And in it caus’d the Spectres of the Dead to take sweet forms
In likeness of himself.1

So unless you’re Blake himself or someone well versed in his work, you may find his language somewhat obscure. Many early scholars gave up and called Blake mad. It’s somewhat understandable, for it takes some time to orientate yourself to Blake. But dig deeper and persist, and the power of his poetry grows with time.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have attempted to outline some of the basic elements of Blake’s vision as I develop my understanding of it. So I will now continue with this by adding some descriptions, as I interpret them at this point, of the four terms the title of this post is made from: Spectres, Shadows, Emanations, and Eternals. These terms are all types of beings, and in another sense, aspects of the one being, the human. So here goes.

Spectres are the haunting persona of the human who has fallen into the world of time and space. They haunt through preying upon the person’s fears, doubts, insecurities, hatred, jealousy, and other darker emotions. In this way the Spectre is a presence that works to bring a person further into the fallen world. It is a fragment of the person, much like the Jungian shadow, which requires effort to face, gain mastery over, and reintegrate consciously. To the degree a person gains mastery over their own Spectre, they are able to not succumb to the imprisoning of effect of the fallen world.

Shadows are similar to Spectres. They are the pale counterpart of an aspect of being, a powerless residue that is a passive form of its original. In this sense, the shadow is the outcome of the defeated person, similar to the classical Greek shade. Think zombie-brain couch-potato; a person who does not live out their full potential, having been suppressed and defeated.

Emanations are the female aspects of being. Blake’s human is ultimately (in their restored state) androgynous, as a harmonious blend of both male and female qualities. The female aspect – the Emanation – gives the capacity for relating, while the male aspect gives the capacity of creative will. Together the two form a mutual symbiosis of complete being. There are many Emanations in Blake’s cosmos, ranging from heavenly to diabolical; these either facilitate or hamper the freedom of the individual. The divine Emanation, Jerusalem, represents the freedom of genuine love, which is merciful, integrative, and liberating. Emanations can also become separated from their counterpart, which creates the experience of being in conflict with one’s environment, deceived, seduced, or afflicted by it in relation to one’s actions. This occurs because the Emanation provides the medium through which one’s surroundings are related to,  for the exercise of one’s creative will.

Eternals are the restored humans of Blake’s cosmos. They are free from the limitations of space and time, and can instead create their own space and time as they wish, in order to experience various realities. They are the creator, the ultimate artist – on par with God – rather than the created; they are subjects, not objects. They dwell in Eden, which is very different from the Biblical idea of Eden – being a state of perpetual striving in creative rapture and vision. From Eden, they may rest every so often in Beulah, the paradisaical dream realm, but from there is the risk that they may then fall into lower states if they become too immersed in the dreams they create and forget their eternal self. Yet it is also by this process that they may integrate the experiences of lesser states, and thereby grow in love and wisdom. Eventually, a fallen being is restored to Eternity, often by the help of other Eternals (which is the main plot of Blake’s magnum opus, Jerusalem). The Eternals are complete humans; those who have integrated the various aspects of themselves (mentioned above).

The reader who is familiar with Carl Jung is likely to notice some similarities (the anima, shadow etc.) with these aspects of the human which Blake described a century prior to Jung. Blake is not the only one to do this, of course, as he studied many earlier writers, including Jakob Böhme and Paracelsus. The vision which Blake presents revives (in part) a mode of thinking from the medieval era, while also drawing upon earlier influences, such as the Old Testament and British folklore. Yet it is not simply the past Blake sought; his work is also highly original, which is why he uses original names for many of his own characters. He was primarily an artist, even though his ideas appear mystical, philosophical, or traditional. Approaching his work as art, whether visual or poetic, is perhaps the best way to begin to enter into what initially appears obscure to the unfamiliar reader.

 

Notes:
1 – From ‘Milton (excerpts)/Book the First’, Wikisource: en.wikisource.org/wiki/Milton_%28excerpts%29/Book_the_First

 

Close Menu