Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Poet, a Loon, and a Likable Gent

Dear Everybody:

I'm back from two weeks in New Mexico, which is awesomely beautiful and intellectually engaging, and two days in Pittsburgh, where Marianne's mother lies in rehab, immensely tired but otherwise fine.

And here's today's poem:

By William Blake

I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,

A mark in every face I meet,

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,

In every infant's cry of fear,

In every voice, in every ban,

The mind-forged manacles I hear:

How the chimney-sweeper's cry

Every blackening church appals,

And the hapless soldier's sigh

Runs in blood down palace-walls.

But most, through midnight streets I hear

How the youthful harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born infant's tear,

And blights with plagues the marriage-hearse.

Okay, so first you should know that "chartered" means authorized or incorporated under the law. Which is to say, "official." Blake's making fun of the concept -- if a street can be chartered, why then, so can a river! Next, when a poet mentions marks in a face, he's referring to "the mark of Cain," and if you don't get that one, hit the Bible. It's in Genesis, the first and single most entertaining book (I would not be so bold as to guess which book is the most profound) in the Old Testament. And "manacles" are of course handcuffs or chains.

William Blake was a poet, a loon, and an extremely likable gent. His drawings (which he did as illustrations for his poems) are as well known as the poems themselves. He was a mystic. He once drew a picture of the ghost of a flea -- and it was a good one. He invented his own mythology and religion. A friend once came to visit him, when he was old (this would be in the early 19th century), and found Will and his wife in their back yard, naked -- "Being Adam and Eve," he explained. If you care to look him up, almost any biography or article about the man will be vastly entertaining.

So, the poem itself: Blake went walking in London, where he lived, and every face he saw seemed woeful and weak. In every word, shout, or baby's wail, he heard minds imprisoned by their own weaknesses. The chimney-sweeps shouts appal the churches. ("Blackening" because the coal-smoke of the time darkened the stones black -- a lot of the old churches are still that color today.) The hapless (unlucky) soldier's sigh "runs in blood down palace walls."

This last, incidentally, is a kick-ass metaphor*. "Blood" evokes the violence of war, "palace" suggests that the army serves not the people but those in power, and "walls" conjures up the image of blank, unlistening stone... i.e., the soldier kills & is killed in service of those who neither see nor hear him.

Finally, Blake says, worst of all is how the teenage prostitute cursing degrades everybody: The newborn infant and the virtuous newlyweds alike are corrupted by and implicated in the guilt of such a terrible thing even existing in their world.

And that "marriage-hearse" at the end? The marriage of opposites, of the end of life and its bright center. This is called an "oxymoron," incidentally, which means a self-contradiction. What's that when it's at home? you ask. Break it down: "oxy" from the Greek oxys, meaning sharp, keen, or acid, and "moron" from the Greek moros, meaning dull or foolish. Literally, sharply-dull or acutely-foolish. So the word oxymoron is itself an oxymoron! Cool, huh?

Oh, and let me mention that Blake very carefully made sure to write happy poems as well, uplifting and cheering messages of encouragement to offset such observations as the above. So he was neither a prophet of doom nor a Pollyanna. He was somewhere in the middle, observing the world from different angles.

All best,

*Y'all know the difference between a metaphor and a simile, right? A simile is a comparison using the words "like" or "as." A metaphor is a direct comparison of two dissimilar things. Why should this distinction be important? Joseph Campbell, being interviewed explained this thusly: "A simile is saying The boy ran like a deer. A metaphor is saying The boy is a deer."

"That's a lie!" the interviewer cried, shocked.


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