Poetry By Heart Blog

Poems Pictures and Prophecy

14th March 2016

Blake

(America a Prophecy 1793 Copy E Library of Congress electronic edition)

The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations;
The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up;
The bones of death, the cov’ring clay, the sinews shrunk & dry’d.
Reviving shake, inspiring move, breathing! awakening!
Spring like redeemed captives when their bonds & bars are burst;
Let the slave grinding at the mill, run out into the field:
Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air;
Let the inchained soul shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years;
Rise and look out, his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open.
And let his wife and children return from the opressors scourge;
They look behind at every step & believe it is a dream.
Singing. The Sun has left his blackness, & has found a fresher morning
And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear & cloudless night;
For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease.

Chris McCabe’s blog “Poetry Comics” prompted me to write something about William Blake’s prophetic book “America”, in particular, the verses on the illuminated page above.

I can’t remember when I first came upon the poetry of William Blake. It may have been as early as primary school with some of the lyrics from “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”. I seem to have a very early memory of ‘The Tyger and’ of ‘The Chimney Sweep’. Whenever it was, it was the beginning of a bit of an obsession with the man and his works. I’m not alone, of course. It seems that when people want to reference ideas of the “other”, the mystical, wild and strange they reach for Blake. The extraordinary deconstructed Western “Dead Man” being a relatively recent example.

I have chosen the text above because it is illustrative of a sort of shock and surprise concerning Blake that I myself experienced way back in the early years of the 1970s. I was studying at the University of Manchester and one of our lecturers advertised a talk on Blake incorporating colour slides from his prophetic books. This was a time before the ready availability of colour reproductions of Blake’s books. At that time I was familiar with just a few pieces of Blake’s art – the illuminated “Songs.” and student posters of “Glad Day”, “Urizen creating the World” but with few other examples. What I saw shocked me. The pictures were not at all like the pretty Georgian gothic pages of Songs of Innocence. True, there were again those neoclassical nude figures flying through the pages, but also there were monsters, aggression, violence and raw, often crude depictions – in fact, it was all somewhat like the pulp comic books of 1950s America. Flying, angry superheroes confronted deconstructed Biblical-looking patriarchs amid flames. There were dancing and swooning maidens, gesturing heroes but also darkness, pulsating brains and planetary globes of blood.

In the picture above we have a relatively tame example of one of Blake’s illuminated pages. Uncoloured versions make his etching techniques even more startlingly evident. Blake took great joy in his artistic methods and he directly linked his physical etching, engraving and printing techniques to intellectual perceptions about the nature of reality and God. I am quite sure that he was just as proud and aware of his stippling and hatching lines and marks in the clouds as Lichtenstein was of his enlarged “Ben-Day” dots in the 1960s. The actual artifice of etching is foregrounded and made evident. The blank paper itself is made into clouds and brightness. In the best of Blake’s work he handles the treatment of the words, images and coiling vegetation within the frame of the page as a unity. Here the page is dominated by a resurrected figure. His physique is brightly lit and stylised with “superman” muscles and a dramatically foreshortened pose. He sits on the road-kill flesh of his own dead body and looks up.

What’s it all about? These verses themselves are from the eighth plate of “America a Prophecy” printed in 1793. Although the poem centres on the colonists’ struggle against the tyranny of Britain, this poem contains very little at all about the real, historical events of the American War of Independence. Instead, some of the characters of the war, Washington, Franklin, Tom Paine, Gates, Hancock and Green and “Albion’s wrathful Prince” are involved in a narrative with Blake’s own mythological figures – Orc, Urizen, Oothoon and Rahab. Like an opera, or like a baroque ceiling painting, figures enact their passions against a background of wonders. Orc – a supernatural figure of violent and terrifying wrathful revolutionary fervour speaks the words on the page above.

What educational use does this excerpt have? It is one of the more quoted sections from Blake’s prophecies. I think that if students were presented only with the text and image above, without any context, the strength and meaning of the words and images would still be enough. Most would recognise the allusions to the Christian Resurrection. The rest of the words are a plain and simple evocation of freedom and the release from suffering – a universal human joy expressed here with simple economy:-

“Let the slave grinding at the mill, run out into the field:

Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air:”

…………..

“And let his wife and children return from the opressor’s scourge;

They look behind at every step & believe it is a dream.”

Delving a little deeper, we might ask students to consider the versification, the symbolism and simple personification – “the linen”… “the clay” … “the slave” … “The Sun has left his blackness”.. “the fair Moon rejoices”…. “Empire”….“the Lion”…. “the Wolf”… (notice that these don’t get crushed, defeated or slain, they simply “cease”.) We might ask what is a prophecy? Something about the future? Unargued assertion? (“…For everything that lives is holy” …..”All religions are One”) What is the syntax of prophecy? Whose “voice” speaks prophecy – is it the poet or some other? What form do prophetic statements take? Can anyone prophesy?

If the constraints of the syllabus and teaching objectives permit wouldn’t it be great to ask the students to pick a contemporary problem or issue and write their own short prophecy? Illustrate their own street comic verses or graphic novelette? Learn some of Blake’s lines and practise declaiming them? Experience the exaltation of expressing a prophetic vision! Does it have any meaning or value still in our troubled and postmodern age?

 

Phil TAbout the Author: Phil Tomlinson lives in Hastings on the South Coast. He is a retired, former teacher of English and Media Studies and Deputy Head of a secondary school. He now coaches French undergraduates in English language in preparation for examinations to enter the grandes écoles.

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Voices From The First World War

3rd March 2016

3.48pm Orgreave by  BsOu10Eo Creative Commons

3.48pm Orgreave by BsOu10Eo Creative Commons

On March 19th 2016 at Homerton College 41 young people will recite poems chosen from the Poetry By Heart World War One showcase. In the run up to this moving event we are delighted to publish an article by Connie Ruzich first seen on her Blog http://behindtheirlines.blogspot.com/  that features two of the poets in our anthology: Robert Graves and Charles Sorley.

On October 5th, 1915, twenty-year-old Charles Sorley wrote to his father describing his time in the trenches outside Loos: “…rain and dirt and damp cold. O for a bath!”  Sorley was known for his love of stormy weather: as a student at Marlborough College, he exulted in wet and windy runs across the trails of Marlborough Downs.   An excerpt from the last stanza of “Song of the Ungirt Runners,” a poem he wrote in early 1915, expresses that passion:

The rain is on our lips,

We do not run for prize.

But the storm the water whips

And the wave howls to the skies.

Eight days after writing to his father, on October 13, 1915, in one of the last attacks of the Battle of Loos, Sorley was shot in the head and died instantly.  In the chaos of the battle, his body was never recovered: he is commemorated on the Loos Memorial, along with 20,609 other British and Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave.  His poetry was published three months after his death in the slim volume Marlborough and Other Poems. 

In February 1916, Robert Graves, another soldier poet serving in France, wrote to his friend Edward Marsh that he had “just discovered a brilliant young poet called Sorley” and that “It seems ridiculous to fall in love with a dead man as I have found myself doing but he seems to have been one so entirely after my own heart in his loves and hates, besides having been just my own age.”  In 1918 Graves’ published a volume of his own poems, Fairies and Fusiliers: it includes a poem that remembers Charles Sorley and celebrates a life of action.

Sorley’s Weather

WHEN outside the icy rain
  Comes leaping helter-skelter,
Shall I tie my restive brain
  Snugly under shelter?
Shall I make a gentle song         5
  Here in my firelit study,
When outside the winds blow strong
  And the lanes are muddy?
With old wine and drowsy meats
  Am I to fill my belly?         10
Shall I glutton here with Keats?
  Shall I drink with Shelley?
Tobacco’s pleasant, firelight’s good:
  Poetry makes both better.
Clay is wet and so is mud,         15
  Winter rains are wetter.
Yet rest there, Shelley, on the sill,
  For though the winds come frorely,
I’m away to the rain-blown hill
  And the ghost of Sorley.

 

(Robert Graves 1895 – 1985)

 

Tobacco, firelight, and poetry are pleasant and good, but “Sorley’s Weather” urges readers to put down their books and stride out into rough storms on rain-blown hills.  Experiencing the wildness of nature is far better than retreating to the fireside with the Romantics.  Even Percy Shelly’s meditations on nature (“The wilderness has a mysterious tongue/ Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild”) can be left behind on the window sill.  Sorley’s own poem “Rain,” written in 1912, tells readers where to find him:

 

When the rain is coming down,
And all Court is still and bare,
And the leaves fall wrinkled, brown,
Through the kindly winter air,
….
There is something in the rain
That would bid me to remain:
There is something in the wind
That would whisper, “Leave behind
All this land of time and rules,
Land of bells and early schools.

 

For those mourning the dead and remembering the thousands of every day tragedies of the Western Front, it was windswept hills, mud, and winter rain that were best able to summon the ghosts of the men and boys who would never return.  At the start of the Battle of Loos, torrential rains flooded the trenches, and Graves’ poem calls to mind the conditions of the war, as well as the weather that Sorley loved so well in life.

J.R.R. Tolkien, writing about another rover and warrior, wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost.”  Not long after enlisting, Sorley wrote in a letter home, “Indeed I think that after the war all brave men will renounce their country and confess they are strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Powell, A Deep Cry).

Connie Ruzich About the AuthorDr. Connie Ruzich is a University Professor of English at Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 2014, she was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Exeter, where she researched the ways in which the poetry of the First World War has been used to frame, commemorate, and discuss the war.  She has been teaching language and literature for twenty-two years, and her research examines how language use and practices shape identity.  In her spare time, she enjoys hiking in the woods, listening to obscure bands from the 1980s, and watching goat videos on YouTube. She writes a blog that shares and discusses poetry of World War I, focusing on the lost voices of the war: Behind Their Lines

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