William Blake: Songs of Innocence and of Experience – Review

Children of the future Age,
Reading this indignant page;
Know that in a former time,
Love! sweet Love! was thought a crime.

A fascinating collection, and an intriguing introduction to Blake’s ‘complex mythology’. The book takes us on a journey of discovery through the contrasting concepts of the title: from Innocence to Experience.

To Blake, Innocence seems to represent a childlike mind-state unspoiled by the corrupting influences of adolescence. The majority of these poems are decorated with simplistic religious images: The Shepherd, The Lamb, and The Tree of Life being recurring symbols throughout. The innocence of childhood is directly related to the pure and untouched beauty of the natural world in many of the poems in the first half of this collection.

However it is during the Songs of Experience where Blake’s true talent as a visionary poet becomes apparent. Blake’s visions of a holy world become blighted by his increasing awareness of the pain and poverty he sees in his depiction of modern London. His Christian spirituality grows ever more conflicted and his personal ideas on religious truth become starkly contrasted with those of Church. Poems such as Holy Thursday start to show show his increasing frustration:

Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

 

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

 

And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill’d with thorns.
It is eternal winter there.

 

For where-e’er the sun does shine,
And where-e’er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

Here we see that Blake is making a direct and powerful attack on the shameful presence of so much injustice in a supposedly ‘holy’ land with some commentators arguing that the reference to ‘Holy Thursday’ is a satire of the annual parade of charity children in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

However, the most damning critique of the Church perhaps comes in The GARDEN of LOVE:

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

 

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.

 

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

The imagery here is clear. The garden of Innocence in which he had once played is now occupied by a chapel surrounded by graves. The black priests may represent the death and burial of the innocent view of childish freedoms.

And yet, to Blake, Experience itself not seen as being wholly negative. With Experience comes the development of reason and the discovery of sexual desire, both of which are symbolised throughout many of the poems and are represented as dualistic in nature. To me, Blake’s Christianity has more in common with paganism and mysticism than it does with the damning, repressive institutional Christianity of the Church during Blake’s time.

Overall this was a fantastic and clearly revolutionary collection. The language is simple but the message is complex, and it seems like these poems are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the mystical mythology that Blake constructed in his other works. I’m definitely looking forward to exploring more in the future.

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E.E. Cummings: 95 Poems – Review

4.5* Absolutely beautiful. The work of a true master. Have never read anything quite like it. I’m not going to give it 5* purely on the basis that I read it so sporadically and many of the poems in the middle I didn’t give my full attention to. However, for me, the beginning and the end were absolutely stunning.

I feel like these
were poems
I could read again
and again (and again
and again)

and still find
meaning (the truth
that I had always
sought) within
them

Cummings’ experimental (yet thoughtful) style really makes you take a step back and analyse the poem as a poem. The length of the lines, the punctuation, the depth of the stanzas, they all have a clear purpose and they all change how the words themselves are experienced — more so than anything I’ve ever read before.

Reading these so randomly over the space of a couple of months (in PDF form on a laptop [the formatting didn’t work on kindle]) was somewhat of a disservice. I’ll next pick up a book of Cummings poetry when I’m in a situation where I can purchase a hard copy and keep it with me at all times. I have no doubt I will get even more from it than I did from this edition.

Jorge Luis Borges: Dreamtigers – Review

A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Through the years he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face.

This quote is taken from the afterword of this truly beautiful collection.

What Borges was aiming to create in Dreamtigers (or El hacedor [The Maker], its original Spanish title) was the accumulation of fragments, parables and poems that ‘serve no other purpose than to show what time accumulates in the bottom of a writer’s desk drawer’. Yet what he has created here is a wonderful and truly personal depiction of the brilliant man’s mind, and the experiences throughout the years of his long life that helped to shape it .

The style of all of these pieces is prototypically Borges, none of the parables or poems going beyond 2 or 3 pages in length, and all containing many of the themes we come to associate with the great Argentinian poet: time, infinity, dreams, tigers, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Mirrors, Cervantes, Norse mythology, etc. However there seems to be something that stands alone in Dreamtigers, a somewhat lonely, melancholy which ends in the infinite quest for identity.

When describing El hacedor Borges alludes to the fact that he wants this work to be thought of as most truly ‘him’: ‘For good or for ill, my readers, these fragments piled up here by time are all that I am. The earlier work no longer matters’. He, at the time of this publication was not a very old man, yet his sight had already started to degrade, the world which he had so vividly painted in his earlier work was slowly slipping away from him. Perhaps this is what led to the focus on dreams? Perhaps through dreams Borges could recollect and create himself anew. He could become ‘El hacedor’ of the collections original title.

The poetry is beautiful, the prose is magical, and overall this book is something, as I’ve found with every other Borges book, that I will come back to again and again over the years. In my personal opinion it is not the best collection of his work, as I’m a sucker for his slightly longer short stories, and I’m certainly no poetry expert, but it is definitely worth a read for anyone looking for a book to captivate and mystify them in a way that only Borges is capable of.

Jorge Luis Borges – A Dream

In a deserted place in Iran there is a not very tall stone tower that has neither door nor window. In the only room (with a dirt floor and shaped like a circle) there is a wooden table and a bench. In that circular cell, a man who looks like me is writing in letters I cannot understand a long poem about a man who in another circular cell is writing a poem about a man who in another circular cell . . . The process never ends and no one will be able to read what the prisoners write.

(Translated, from the Spanish, by Suzanne Jill Levine.)