THE POETRY OF BLAKE.* Soars nine years ago the Oxford
University Press published a volume of Blake's poems, edited by Mr. John Sampson, and the same editor is now responsible for The Poetical Works of William Blake in the "Oxford Eclitionof Standard Authors." The new edition is in many ways an improvement on the old. It includes " The Book of Thal," perhaps the most haunting and beautiful of all Blake's poems, which, for some reason we cannot appreciate, was omitted/rota the earlier volume, It includes also "The French Revolution," hitherto unpub- lished; selected passages from some of the other Prophetic Books ; and Blake's account of the Canterbury Pilgrims from the Descriptive Catalogue. The multitude of footnotes, always distracting and often superfluous, have been pruned away, though we think they are still too numerous for a volume of this kind. It would be ungrateful, however, to suggest that Mr. Sampson's care approaches meticulousness, when we are under a great obligation to him for having provided a satisfactory text.
There is in all great poetry an irrationaiquality, difficUlt of analysis and definition. It is present, to some ,extent. in the more intellectual forms of dramatic and epic poetry, but it is in the lyric that its presence is moat marked. We term it irrational because we experience it only in conditions of intoxi- cation or ecstasy, when the masoning faculty is momentarily paralysed, and the mind, to paraphrase Dante, becomes almost divine in its vision. After those conditions, which it induces in us, cease to .exist, the experience itself ceases. In the case of an epic or of a dramatic poem the mind is capable of reconstituting its broad structural features, much as Aristotle reconstructs the story of Odysseus or of Iphigenia ; but in lyrical poetry this kind of structure is not essential, because the mechanical relation of cause and effect, insepar- able from the .presentation of character in action, is not essential. Aristotle's Poetics, it is as well to remember, does not examine the question of lyric poetry; and if we accept the Aristotelian theory of plasou as the function of all fine art, then the mimetic character of lyrical poetry would seem to be more closely akin to that of music than to that of dramatic and epic poetry: that is to ,say, if music represents certain spiritual moods.andemotions, it does so by inducing similar moods and emotions inthe listener; the experience is not objec- tive, it is a:form of enthusiasm, of possession, and the planets being subjective, the actflapote is more complete. This is 'true also, allowing for the slight difference,in the medium and object, of lyric poetry: it liberates in us the natnial emotions which habit and custom have restrained, and it does so, not by awakening our sympathies, but by releasing and ,stimulating the potentialities of our own emotional nature. It is not bound by conditions of reality and actuality in the same way as dramatic and, to a lesser degree, epic poetry are. 'Its world is an ideal world ; but if the substance in which it works is more plastic, it is also more elusive; and though the structure of epic andtragedy is not essential to the lyric, it must, in common with every other form of poetry, have the unity of a single and continuous movement.
The poetry Of Blake is saturated with this irrational quality. He had what we may call the temperament of wonder, the imaginative power of a child, whose simplicity startles us with the delight of surprise. The liquid line and clear colour of the illustrations to "The Book of Thel" and '" Songs of Innocence" have all these qualities of candour, simplicity,
and freshness, and reflect them, as it were, in a different medium. "Thel." has all the animistic bias of the childish imagination: the lily breathes in the humble grass, and after she has spoken to Thel comes the magical line :—
" She sensed, and smil'd in tears, then sat down In her silver Shrine."
The cloud "will court the fair-eyed dew to take me to her shining tent "; the worm is helpless and naked like an infant; the clod is at once a mother, and, with a more sophisticated symbolism, a medium between earth and the underworld. The order in which they appear and speak to Thel is apparently
• Its Poetical Works of William Make. By John Sampson. Oxford: at the University Press. Its. ed. net.) natural; but the slightly dramatic element of dialogue does nut make the poem structural, though by it the thing becomes an emotional vision rather than a free emotiou: Its feeling is purely lyrical; the first line induces in us the receptive condition of trance; we are possessed by the emotion at once; and there is no development or unfolding, it is a simple con- tinuous movement. We have the repeated suggestion- virva rape/ " Ah I Thal is-like a wat'ry bow, and like a parting cloud;
Like a reflection in a glass; like shadows in the water ; Like dreams of infants, like a smile upon an infant's face;
Like the dove's voice; like transient day ; like music in the airs The idea underlying these images is identical, it is simply intensified by repetition; only by its movement do we become aware of it, as some light filmy substance floating might betray to us an unsuspected motion of the air. '• The Tyger," too, is pure suggestion; the idea is immediate, but it has more unity than the string of similes which compose Shelleyla " Skylark." It acts upon us in precisely the same way as it acted upon Blake. Take as a further example of this bypnotie suggestion a passage from "The French Revolution" :--- "Then the ancientest Peer, Duke of Burgundy, -rose froes;;h0 Monarch's right hand,ved as :wines From his mountains; an odour of war, like a ripe.vineys.rd,rose from his garments, And the chamber became as a clouded sky; o'er the Council he stretched his red limbs
Clothed in flames of crimson, as a ripe vineyard stretches over sheaves of corn
Tho fierce Duke bung over the Council, around him crowd, weeping in his burning robe,
A. cloud of infant souls: his words fall like purple autumn on the sheaves."
It would be irrelevant to inquire whether there were any Duke of Burgundy at this period; but it is amusing to,noto that a man's mere title evokes the images of vintage, and that these in their turn become the symbols of wrath. The imaginative power blinds us, for the moment, to the naive sequence of ideas.
The visionary in Blake always hindered, and eventually destroyed, the lyrist. The fluid movement was arrested by concrete images, which found their proper expression in, paint. The cloud and obscurity of the Prophetic Books are occasion- ally illuminated by such passages as that of the nightingale and lark in the second book of " Milton" ; but what•may he interesting to the mystic and visionary is not necessarily interesting to the lyrist, however closely we may link together the irrational with the wonderful and the unearthly beauty which derives from it. Mr. Ellis and Mr. Yeats have edited the Prophetic Books. In their prefaee they had the temerity to say that Swinburne did not understand the mysticism Blake; and Swinburne, with his usual vivacity, =plied: "It is possible, if the spiritual Sant of his Hibernian heredity:bas been or can be established, that I was [innocent of any.know- ledge of Blake's meaning] for the excellent ,reason that, being a Celt, he now and then too probably had .none worth the labour of deciphering." Unable to decide a question .at issue between these Olympians, we agree,.diploinatically, -with both of them. We ,merely repeat that the Prophetic Books are occasionally illuminated by splendid poetry, and ,that the visionary power, a vital energy of creation, which he shows in them is seldom accompanied by constructive imagination.
Blake's value to us, at the present time, issiot simply that he was a visionary, a prophet of the Revolution, or the worshipper of any other chimera. Mr. Sampson, unswayed by these prejudices, for that reason isa perfect editor. The early work, recapturing the lyrical.genina of. Shakespeare and Ben Jonaon,.interesta us. Werecogniae the-irrational element whether as emotional vision or pure emotion, as un element essential to any further progress. There is a technical question involved. The.vers litres and roken rhythms which Blake used are sufficient to show, however primitive they may seem to us now, that the music of lyrical poetry is not necessarily the music of metre. To put it in another way, lyrical poetryhas much to gain by following the free rhythms of music; and the revolt against metre, involved in such a method, bee, after all, the sanction of Shelley, of -Sir Philip Sidney, and of the first critic of poetry, Aristotle,