Songs of innocence, experience and a galaxy far, far away

WILLIAM BLAKE AGAINST. THE WORLD By John Higgs Just as some religious believers value the cultivation of a personal relationship with ...


WILLIAM BLAKE AGAINST. THE WORLD
By John Higgs

Just as some religious believers value the cultivation of a personal relationship with the divine, those of us who have the nerve to call ourselves Blakeans often make the poet-artist-visionary a William Blake of our own. A scholar I knew speculated that, like her, the poet must have had high levels of histamine – and that might help explain his extraordinary creativity. Yeats admired Blake so much that he tried to claim it for the Irish. The Blake who first inflamed me was the political Blake, in whom I saw a kinship with other later thinkers whom I already admired. Thirty years later, the reprimand I received in an undergraduate seminar still stings: if I could overcome my “junior Marxist training,” the professor said, I might actually know Blake’s poems.

This is John Higgs’ second book on the poet, following the 2019 manifesto, ‘William Blake Now: Why He Matters More Than Ever’, from which this project was born.. The fact that the English author, journalist and cultural historian has previously written about Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, the electronic rock band KLF and a whole host of old and new oddities has provided some advanced insight into who might be his Blake. I was ready for the wacky, dude version of Blake. Fortunately, Higgs dismisses the idea that Blake “took psychedelic drugs, and that was an explanation of his work,” but my expectations weren’t entirely misdirected.

Higgs’s Blake is not the stumbled proto-hippie of some renderings, nor a Blake for everyone – although Higgs, despite his book’s pugilist title and his close examination of many of the major disputes in Blake’s life, sometimes presents a suspicious and conciliatory attitude. portrait of a poet who, he says, “accepts all sides”. A look at Blake’s annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds’ speeches shows how scathingly he could reject ideas he knew to be wrong; a quick read of his damning poem “London” would also do the trick. Rather, Higgs’ Blake is a Blake for anyone whose sensibilities align with Higgs’ interests in neuroscience and quantum mechanics, “Star Wars” analogies, and discussions of Carl Jung and Eckhart Tolle.

The book is organized along predictable, unconventional lines. Some parts are loosely chronological; others are philosophical or scientific larks. Important figures in Blake’s life and thought, such as Swedenborg, have their own sections, and at times it veers into biography (there is a lot of talk about Blake’s marriage).

I repeatedly resorted to the Blakeian framework of “innocence” and “experience” while reading and reflecting on “William Blake vs. the World.” How others will receive the book may well depend on where they are on the innocent-experienced continuum. To me, Higgs often comes across as an incredibly innocent reader of Blake, his ear not tuned to the poet’s frequencies of irony and humor and the interpretative and emotional possibilities they expand. But Higgs’ writing is always clear and confident, even when he’s wrong. Of Blake’s “Songs of Innocence,” he notes, “It is interesting that he chose to write a collection of songs for children rather than gatherings of adults.” As some scholars have noted, Blake never made this explicit.

It’s not hard to see why Higgs assumed these were children’s verses. In the introduction to “Songs of Innocence”, Blake describes the poems that follow as “happy songs / Every child may be glad to hear”, but Higgs misses the ambiguities here. Every child (but not adult) can (but also may not) derive joy from songs. Higgs writes that “Blake described a world of play and fun, steeped in the message that spirit beings watched over all children, so they had nothing to fear” – which will be news to many readers who have perceived of underlying sinister and intimations in these verses. (George Orwell, who adapted the title of his heartbreaking boarding school essay “Such, such were the joys” from a line in “The Echoing Green,” timed the irony.)

Higgs’ sunny take on “Songs of Innocence” will also surprise anyone who detects the wooden diction and reductive moralizing at the end of “The Chimney Sweeper” poem – So if everyone is doing their duty, they don’t have to worry about getting hurt” — that something is wrong. But Higgs writes:

“The last line was in keeping with a general theme in ‘Songs of Innocence’, the idea that a loving fatherly God would protect all who were good. This was both na├»ve and false, as the reality of the lives of the swept away children demonstrated. When Blake came to write a verse for ‘Songs of Experience’ five years later, he had clearly realized his mistake.

Blake, an outspoken radical more than aware of the sad reality of the life of young failures, was not mistaken; the accompanying piece he wrote later is neither a my culpa nor a correction; the poems are written from perspectives that differ – or are, as Blake might put it, “contrary”. Blake is said to have, at all times, disdained the conventional piety that “a loving fatherly God would protect all who were good”.

Throughout, Higgs rightly and convincingly emphasizes the primacy and power of the imagination in Blake’s work – “I no more question my bodily or vegetative eye than I would a window concerning a view that I look through and not with it” – which makes his insistently literal readings of many of Blake’s writings puzzling. His analysis of the “Proverbs of Hell” in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” reveals the same resistance to irony seen in his readings of “Songs of Innocence.” Blake read Milton deeply, albeit idiosyncratically, and gleaned from “Paradise Lost”, among other things, that Satan really can be a hoot. Higgs is not in on the joke. Blake “isn’t saying there’s no difference between heaven and hell,” Higgs tells us, nor “is he arguing that they’re both equally bad He writes very clearly that: “Good is heaven. Evil is hell.” another conclusion.

Higgs is most compelling when writing about Blake’s prickly and paradoxical views of the natural world, and when pointing out the essential and pervasive sexuality in Blake’s output. His own project is Blakeian in at least one respect: it is the production of a busy and open mind. At times, his extended ruminations on science and philosophy drew me away from Blake rather than bringing him closer, and his profusion of pop culture pings (The Beatles, David Bowie, Pharrell Williams, Kanye West, even Billy Joel all manifested) superfluous. (“Enough! or Too much”, goes the end of “Hell’s Proverbs”.)

At other times, it was amusing to watch Higgs’ cogs turn, to hear his thoughts ricochet off the walls of his internal archives of affinities, allusions, and absorptions. His tone is measured, but Higgs does not cease to mentally struggle in his earnest quest to understand and explain a mind that, he writes, is perhaps “too big a mind for us to ever properly grasp”. Perhaps that’s why, coming to the end of his book, I felt I had learned more about the mind of John Higgs than that of William Blake.

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