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Poet! Poet! Burning bright

An ode to William Blake on the eve of his 250th birthday

December 24, 2006|Philip Pullman | PHILIP PULLMAN is the author of many books, including "The Golden Compass," "The Subtle Knife" and "The Amber Spyglass," which together make up the "His Dark Materials" trilogy.

IN 1962 OR thereabouts, when I was a young boy intoxicated by the sounds that poetry makes, I came across Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." I read it with astonishment and with an almost sensual delight. Having become drunk on "Howl," I moved on to other poems by Ginsberg, notably "Sunflower Sutra," in which, praising the beauty of the dusty old plant he sees in the wasteland of a San Francisco dock, with its corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face, soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sun-rays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried wire spider web, he evokes an earlier poet who had celebrated the same flower:

I rushed up enchanted -- it was my first

sunflower, memories of Blake -- my visions

I remain grateful to Ginsberg for several things, not least for having pointed the way to a greater poet. In my search for the sort of visionary intensity I'd found in "Howl," I followed his lead toward William Blake, and bought the only edition I could afford, a little paperback selection edited by Ruthven Todd. I carried it everywhere; I have it still. It's on the desk beside me now, its paper yellowing and fragile, its cover as battered and grimy as that sunflower of Ginsberg's, and I'd let many other and more costly books perish before failing to save that one. I read every word over and over and learned many of the poems by heart, and some of my first attempts to write were imitations of the great lyrics.

I am not a Blake scholar, and there are large stretches of the prophetic books that I've never read and probably never shall. But it wasn't scholarship that lured me on: It was intoxication. Blake's world is large and complex enough to provide endless matter for the delusions of the floridly paranoid as well as for academic study, but he had the precious gift of expressing that complexity of thought in lines of unequaled force and limpid clarity:

O Rose, thou art sick!

The invisible worm

That flies in the night,

In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy,

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

It works as poetry always does, on the ear and in the mouth, before it lets itself be disentangled by the mind. There is some great poetry that works like that, but which when disentangled leaves little but a delicate fragrance: Alfred Tennyson's "The Splendor Falls on Castle Walls" is an example, and so is Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussycat." The best of Blake's lyrics, when examined for their intellectual content, disclose tough, dense and sinewy argument, always surprising, always original, always disturbing:

Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

But the reason they work so well, the reason they are unforgettable, is that they have an incantatory power unlike anything else in English.

However, what I've come to cherish most of all in Blake, as I've grown older, is a quality that (to use his own term) I have to call prophetic. It's prophetic in two senses: It foretells, and like the words of the Old Testament prophets, it warns, it carries a moral force.

Furthermore, without being a Blakeian (except in the sense that I follow his own proclamation, "I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's") I confess that the propositions I set out here, with confirmation from his poems and from "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," are the most important things I believe. If I didn't believe them, I couldn't work.

To begin with, then, this world, this extraordinary universe in which we live and of which we are made, is material; and it is amorous by nature. Matter rejoices in matter, and each atom of it falls in love with other atoms and delights to join up with them to form complex and even more delightful structures: " ... and shew you all alive. The world, where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy."

Second, things arise from matter-in-love-with-matter that are not themselves matter. Thoughts emerge from the unimaginable, the non-disentangle-able complexity of the body and the brain, thoughts that are not material, though they have analogues in material processes, and you can't say where one ends and the other begins, because each is an aspect of the other: "Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five senses."

Third, the consciousness that emerges from matter demonstrates that consciousness, like mass, is a normal property of the physical world and much more widely present than human beings think: "How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way, Is an immense World of delight, clos'd by your senses five?"

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