Wednesday, January 14, 2015

William Blake and the Forgiving Lamb

Here is another essay I wrote while participating in the edX massive open online course (MOOC) called The Art of Poetry.

To read the poem “Auguries of Innocence” by William Blake, click this link

“Auguries of Innocence” is an indictment of human cruelty but it is also more than that and no matter how many times I read this poem I know I have not yet understood all the “more.” The poem begins with a grain of sand and a wild flower and proceeds immediately to descriptions of imprisoned birds, starved dogs, and abused horses. Some of the effects of human cruelty include “Heaven in a rage,” calls to heaven for “human blood,” and paradoxically, a lamb that “forgives the Butcher’s knife.” And because the poem emphasizes the interconnectedness of all things, it is intriguing.
Photo: © |

If I understand the lines “A dove-house fill’d with Doves and Pigeons/Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions,” the fallen angels in hell are as upset by human cruelty as the angels in heaven are. Is Blake suggesting the fallen angels or devils that inhabit hell still have a residue of compassion from the time before their fall?

Blake’s compassion toward and embrace of the abused, whether children or animals, is so strong and expansive, it is inspiring. Blake and Dickens were contemporaries. Each genius had a strong voice for social reform in Victorian England.

I often lightly pencil or bracket lines of a poem that jump out and startle me with their beauty or power but with “Auguries of Innocence,” it is useless to do this as I would wind up bracketing almost all the lines in the poem. The poem is an outcry against cruelty. It is also a catalog of punishments in store for those who are cruel. Blake seems to have assumed the role of God’s enforcer, doling out punishments, especially to those who cause a child to doubt. “He who shall teach the Child to Doubt/The rotting Grave shall ne’er get out.” The lamb in the beginning of the poem forgives but Blake does not.

I read that Nietzsche broke down on a street in Italy when he saw a man beating a horse. Blake does not sob at cruelty toward the innocent. He rages against it, like the Old Testament God, and Blake’s rage is enclosed in exquisite and soul-strengthening poetry.

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