Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Auden’s Anxious Library Bench (2): Blake

The next writer in Auden’s judgmental catalog of poets is William Blake. Like Dante and his Commedia, Blake was included in the syllabus of the literature course Auden taught at the University of Michigan the year after he wrote New Year Letter, “Fate and the Individual in European Literature” (the Blake text included is The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).

Here is how Auden describes him in NYL:

Upon his right appears, as I

Reluctantly must testify

And weigh the sentence to be passed,

A choleric enthusiast,

Self-educated WILLIAM BLAKE

Who threw his spectre in the lake,

Broke off relations in a curse

With the Newtonian Universe,

But even as a child would pet

The tigers VOLTAIRE never met,

Took walks with them through Lambeth, and

Spoke to Isaiah in the Strand,

And heard inside each mortal thing

Its holy emanation sing…

There are allusions to several bits of Blake here–both to his poetry and to his biography (for instance, he lived for a time in Lambeth), but especially to his poetry. So, he refers to “[t]he tigers,” which brings to mind Blake’s well known poem “The Tyger“:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

But the mention of Voltaire immediately afterwards recalls other poems of Blake. For example, in The Song of Los Auden refers to Voltaire in close proximity to Newton, just as Auden does (“the Newtonian Universe”), along with Locke and Rousseau:1

Thus the terrible race of Los & Enitharmon gave

Laws & Religions to the sons of Har binding them more

And more to Earth: closing and restraining:

Till a Philosophy of Five Senses was complete

Urizen wept & gave it into the hands of Newton & Locke

Clouds roll heavy upon the Alps round Rousseau & Voltaire:

And on the mountains of Lebanon round the deceased Gods

Of Asia; & on the desarts of Africa round the Fallen Angels

The Guardian Prince of Albion burns in his nightly tent

Blake refers to Newton many other times as well. So, in Book 1 of Milton:

Art thou not Newtons Pantocrator weaving the Woof of Locke

To Mortals thy Mills seem every thing & the Harrow of Shaddai

A scheme of Human conduct invisible & incomprehensible

Get to thy Labours at the Mills & leave me to my wrath,

Satan was going to reply, but Los roll’d his loud thunders.

He names Newton again in Book 2 of the same work, more than once. On one of those occasions, he refers again to Voltaire and Rousseau, along with David Hume and Edward Gibbon:

…this Newtonian Phantasm

This Voltaire & Rousseau: this Hume & Gibbon & Bolingbroke

This Natural Religion! this impossible absurdity

Is Ololon the cause of this? O where shall I hide my face

These tears fall for the little-ones: the Children of Jerusalem15

Lest they be annihilated in thy annihilation.

Blake does this in Jerusalem too. A perhaps better known poem featuring criticism of Newton and Voltaire is “Mock on, Mock on,Voltaire, Rousseau“:

MOCK on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;

Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!

You throw the sand against the win

And the wind blows it back again.

And every sand becomes a gem        

Reflected in the beams divine;

Blown back they blind the mocking eye,

But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

The atoms of Democritus

And Newton’s particles of light       

Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,

Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.

Auden’s claim that Blake “[s]poke to Isaiah in the Strand” recalls his numerous “prophetic” works. Best known, I suppose, is an excerpt from his preface to Milton, used by Hubert Parry in 1916 as the text for “Jerusalem” (the link is to a recording of Edward Elgar’s re-scoring):

And did those feet in ancient time,

Walk upon Englands mountains green:

And was the holy Lamb of God,

On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here,

Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:

Bring me my Arrows of desire:

Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!

Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,

Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:

Till we have built Jerusalem,

In Englands green & pleasant Land.


Would to God that all the Lords people were Prophets.

Numbers XI. ch 29 v.

Blake, then, was an important poet for Auden, as evidenced by his being placed next after Dante in New Year Letter. We can get a better sense of what he thought of him by looking to one of his works in prose, “Mystic–and Prophet,” a review of J. Bronowski’s book about Blake called A Man Without a Mask that Auden wrote for The New York Times Book Review in December 1947.2 In that review, Auden describes Blake as follows:

More than any other English poet he has been regarded as a freak whose time and place of birth were accidental, as a writer of beautiful nonsense, or as the mystic visionary of a private universe: by studied selection, indeed, one can present any number of different Blakes, a rationalist Blake, a gnostic Blake, a British Israelite Blake, etc. In such a case, therefore, its is particularly important to draw attention to Blake the citizen whom all the others must necessarily share in common.

Auden goes on to note that Blake lived in a time of “transition from a mercantile to an industrial economy” as well as the upheavals of the “American and French wars.” The “ideology of the French Revolution” menaced traditional beliefs. Blake sought a foothold on this treacherous ground. And “[a]part from his genius, [he] was not eccentric,” regardless of how bizarre his poetry may seem and be.

“Salvation,” for Blake, could not come about “through politics.” With this Auden concurred. But this made him neither an individualist nor a reactionary.

Jerusalem is a city; as sinners in need of mutual forgiveness of each vice, as mutually co-inherent contraries, the prolific and devouring, the innocent and the hypocrite, the child and the father, the inhabitants of Blake’s poems are members one of another. Nor again is he eccentric. A more formally educated man would probably have overlooked the poetic possibilities of Sunday School Hymns, but, luckily for him and us, Blake was not a gentleman. He was, however, a genius.

Auden himself did not limit his love to the “high” forms of poetry, and in this respect he had a much more expansive and ecumenical conception of tradition than did his sometime editor T.S. Eliot. He goes on to laud Blake’s connection of men like Newton with those like Voltaire because they were, for Blake, equal partakers of a shared Whig project.

With astonishing insight, he perceived that the creators of the Whig Weltanschauung, Newton and Locke, and the prophets of the Revolution, Voltaire and Rousseau, were far more like each other than either Pitt or Robespierre supposed. He perceived that the Established Church in the eighteenth century was at heart deist but dared not admit the fact to herself or to the dissenters because of vested interest. Blake was one of the very few in his time, perhaps the only one, to see that the Newtonian universe is inhabited by a Pelagian Man and ruled by a Unitarian God.

Note the same phrase, “the Newtonian universe,” used in the poem as quoted above.

Blake, then, was an artist who set himself at odds with society. Bronowski, the author of the book under review, offers some commentary on the relationship that, he thinks, “all great writers” will inevitably have with “the class…in power.” Auden believes those comments “well phrased,” but, as often, will not allow the problem to stand only “out there,” i.e. will not allow the notion that one should simply blame “The Man,” the evil government, for opposition to and suppression of uncomfortable truths while letting oneself off the hook. No, the problem is one that touches not just social structures, institutions, and so on, but the “human heart” itself. And in fact, this is a one of the justifications for government in the first place. Thus Auden ends on an Augustinian note:

It is not only governments who fear the trouble truth and dissent may cause; so does every human heart; for in his vegetative specter, every man is a frightened defender of his private status quo. That is one reason why governments exist. The anarchists, alas, are wrong.

Well, that got rather long-winded. But I hope it sheds some light on these few verses of Auden.

  1. Unless there is a link to another site, I am quoting Blake from the online William Blake Archive‘s edition of The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, which accounts for oddities in punctuation.
  2. The review can be found in The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose, Volume II: 1929-48, 337-9.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.