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.

Literature, Blake, and the World

In conversation with others, sometimes, when I mention that I am researching within English literature, the question is raised as to the relevance of literature in general, or more specific to my topic, the relevance and importance of William Blake.

To answer the first part – on the relevance of literature – it seems that literature is one of those things that requires communication of its insights from a place of understanding for its significance to be grasped. I don’t want to imply there is some kind of insider secret code involved here, because anyone can study literature, with some willingness and effort. But there is a journey into literature as a discipline; it takes time to learn to read and critique literature. There is a need for the unpacking of literature by the reader as critic. To the casual reader, there is always the surface of a text to skim over. This skimming may bring amusement, entertainment, escapism, dislike, or boredom, but such a mode of reading is likely to miss much of what the text contains. As Andy Mousley writes, in Literature and the Human, reading literature involves an engagement with one’s entire being.1

Literature must be unpacked, or interpreted, by the reader as critic. Communicating an interpretation to those unfamiliar with literature – and also how to approach literary texts – grants access to the deeper meaning of a text. This communication is an art in itself, and may also teach the critic many things. Yet the value of literature as a discipline is not as obvious as something like, say, medicine or science – these latter disciplines have very obvious value, for their products often solve concrete problems in tangible ways. Even if a person has no understanding of medicine themselves, they will easily understand its value – it cures the sick.

But literature is more subtle and subjective, though its implications are no less pervasive and profound. When you recognise how influential literature has been to shape society, culture, history, and our entire scope of human thought, it becomes hard to restrain it as some mere auxiliary to human life. For the individual who studies literature, it promotes many traits for personal development: understanding, perspective, sensibility, empathy, communication ability, and so on. Reading literature activates the mind’s faculties: rouses emotions, raises thoughts and questions, stimulates the imagination, exercises the intelligence, and may stir past memories – it is an experience. Like a story, literature is narrative, but it is also more than that – this is what makes it literature. It could be described as profound narrative; story containing great insight and meaning, story which has human relevance. The fact that literature exists, that it has endured time, crossed many cultural and historical changes and survived, is evidence for its profundity. Literature has wide implications, but understanding these requires some work. Learning to access the enduring power of literature and extrapolate its relevance into various contexts brings forth its gifts for the world. The critic’s role as communicator, as bridge between literature and the world, is essential here.

The second part of the question that others sometimes approach me with – the relevance of William Blake – is a subset of the above. I was searching the Internet this afternoon for some blogs on Blake and the thought occurred to me that there are two ways the question of Blake’s relevance can be approached. The first requires that the world (or rather, individuals in the world) approach Blake for who he is. That means understanding what Blake sought to communicate through his writing and art. It requires entering Blake’s world, which may appear in many ways unusual to our common experience of the world. This is no easy task, and you will likely return changed by it. Blake’s world is visionary; it is paradoxical, imaginative, intense, rich, colourful, emotive, dramatic, daimonic. Not everyone has an interest in such a world; nonetheless, Blake’s literature and art is relevant to our shared world. This becomes apparent when his literature (and art) is unpacked, interpreted, critiqued. Because of the difficulty of this task, there will be only a few willing to embark upon it and persevere until success is gained.

Those not willing to do this, perhaps the majority, would benefit from the second approach, which is brought about by those who understand Blake, then bring Blake to the world in various mediums. There is a blog named Zoamorphosis, edited by Jason Whittaker and Roger Whitson, which explores the evolution of Blake’s work among the arts, media, popular culture, and also scholarship. This, I would suggest, is an excellent blog for providing information on the links between Blake and the world. This is part of a larger project known as Blake 2.0, exploring the dissemination of Blake’s work and Blake research through advances in technology. As not everyone is willing to become a scholar of Blake, there are still many ways to approach Blake through the arts, media, and popular culture.

From my own research, I have come to see how Blake, most of whose works were written over two hundred years ago, has relevance to the world in the twenty-first century. Blake’s work is still being unpacked and interpreted by scholars, while also emanating through art, culture, and media within the wider world. Therefore, both approaches, to and from Blake, are important for growing an understanding of this unique visionary artist and poet. Blake’s (and literature’s) relevance is likely to become better understood through this bi-directional process.

 

Unknown Artist. Fools Cap Map of the World. c. 1590. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

 

Notes:
1 – Mousley, Andy. Literature and the Human: Criticism, Theory, Practice. Routledge, 2013, pp. 45-6.

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