Songs of the Spirit:
Poetry by William Blake, Music by Nancy Wertsch
One of our soprano choristers, Padma Rangarajan, is a Romanticist who studied Blake. She was kind enough to provide the following discussion of William Blake and the four poems which are the text for Songs of the Spirit. The illustrations accompanying the text below were created by Blake as illustrations for the books of poetry mentioned below that he himself published.
“In 1827 there died…a man as worthy of remark and regret as any then famous. In his time he had little enough of recognition or regard from the world; and now that here and there one man and the other begin to observe that after all this one was perhaps better worth notice and honour than most, the justice comes as usual somewhat late.”
Swinburne’s book helped resurrect the work of a man dismissed by his contemporaries as “an unfortunate lunatic,” now revered as one of the great visionaries of his day.
Blake’s artistic vision (influenced by the spiritual visions he experienced from a young age) cannot be considered separately from the turbulent politics that informed it. As a religious nonconformist, an abolitionist, a friend of the revolutionary Thomas Paine, an advocate of free love, and an early supporter of women’s rights, his poetry attacked social and religious hypocrisy and envisioned the creation of a new, liberated world. These were dangerous beliefs to have in the repressive Britain of the 1790’s and early 1800’s: in 1803 Blake was put on trial for sedition for allegedly exclaiming, “damn the king and damn his subjects!” while ejecting a drunken soldier from his garden. He was fortunately acquitted.
Songs of the Spirit uses four Blake poems, three of which come from Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794), which were, according to the author, written to demonstrate “the two contrary states of the human soul.” “The Tyger,” (1794) one of the very few Blake poems to enjoy immediate praise,
demonstrates the artist’s gift for combining striking imagery with interpretive layers. The poem casts the tiger as the force of creative energy bursting forth from dark night of repressive convention, but it has also been read as a commentary on slave rebellions in the West Indies, as an exploration of the power of language, as a representation of the sublime (which encapsulates both beauty and terror), and as a reflection on theodicy. The crucial line “Did he who made the Lamb made thee?” is a reference to its companion poem, “The Lamb,” in Songs of Innocence, but it is also a gesture to Blake’s conception of a Divinity who mingles innocence and knowledge, benevolence and cruelty, tranquility and violence, as the whole experience of creation.
Blake first published Songs of Innocence (1789) for children, and “The Lamb”’s pastoral imagery and lulling meter starkly contrast the fearsome vigor of The Tyger. But even in this seemingly simple poem Blake’s radical vision comes to the fore. The reference to the Crucifixion implicit in the image of the sacrificial, sacral lamb shadows its bucolism, while the line “I a child and thou a lamb/ We are called by his name” conjures a world without divisions, in which the natural, human and divine worlds coexist as equals.
“The Sick Rose,” also from Songs of Experience, is a cipher of a poem whose symbolism is almost impossible to pin down. Blake takes a fairly straightforward horticultural image—a flower being attacked by a garden pest—and imbues it with sensual, ambiguous meaning. Is it a critique of the repression of sexual desire, or a reflection on the evils of prostitution (something Blake was concerned with)? Or is it even, as some have suggested, an attack on corrupt politicians bent on destroying the purity of the British nation? The whorls of suggestive language turn the poem itself into a kind of rose, beautiful and mysterious.
“Memory Hither Come” is one of the many “Song” poems Blake composed early in his career and published in Poetical Sketches (1783). The poem’s seamless mingling of contrasts—dreamy contentment and melancholy—is quintessentially Blakean. Although Blake was not a trained musician, references to music abound in his poems, many of which he set to his own tunes. The consummate artist, Blake believed that the art was essentially mutable, evolving through time and medium: an act of divine will, and a way to access the divinity within.