Blake's Experienced Song


"Introduction" to Songs of Experience

The overriding question which has consumed critics examining the "Introduction" to the Songs of Experience is the nature of the Bard's address to Earth. Any endeavor to elucidate this address begs myriad questions: Blake may or may not be the "Bard"; the "Holy Word" he hears my be that of Jehovah, or Christ, or both, or Urizen, or even poetic genius; the Bard may or may not have correctly interpreted the Holy Word; the address to Earth may in fact issue from separate voices. Equally problematic is the question of just what is being addressed: the Earth may be spiritual man, or corporeal man, or nature, or any combination of the three. Every reading which attempts to define the nature of this address, however, can be grouped into one of three distinct categories. The address is either an authentic appeal imploring Earth (whatever it may be) to realize its salvation, a counterfeit appeal to salvation which Earth, in "Earth's Answer," is correct in rejecting, or a combination of the two. The summary which follows, therefore, groups the critical analyses of the "Introduction" according to which of the above categories each belongs. To minimize the violation of chronological coherence, each text has been placed in chronological order within each category. Additionally, where appropriate texts will be examined against those of another category.

The first critic to read the Bard's address as an authentic appeal imploring Earth to realize its salvation, Joseph Wicksteed draws a distinction between the Piper if innocence and the Bard of experience. Where the former is a pure lyricist piping only for present joy, the latter speaks with a prophetic voice. Moreover, the Bard's eternal vision takes precedence over the authority of parents and elders. Wicksteed reads the "Holy Word" whose message the Bard delivers to Earth as a reference to Genesis 3:8-9, where Jehovah, walking through the Garden, discovers the trespass of Adam. Earth is to be read as man, the "lapsed soul" whom the Bard implores to move beyond the "night" of experience into the "morn" of eternal, joyous fulfillment and liberated love. Man's failure, Wicksteed claims, is his inability to perceive with poetry and divine inspiration--a failure to embrace the joy of the artist which causes the "beauty of life and love" to be obscured, only partially evident in the stars ("broken lights of eternity") which manage to penetrate night (146).

Assuming Blake to be the Bard, and his appeal to Earth to be an authentic call to salvation, F.R. Leavis argues that by poetic means which frustrate any attempt at paraphrase, the "Introduction" proffers a Blakean version of evil, disharmony, and a general fall. To accomplish this, Blake subdues a Christian theme to his own unorthodox purposes. The opening line violates a Christian conception of time and space, and suggests Druid and pagan references. The "Holy Word," therefore, enters into a non-Christian context; thus suggesting that the message the Bard receives and, in turn, delivers to Earth is neither Christian nor pagan, but an amalgamation of the two which is uniquely Blake's own.

C.M. Bowra does not identify the source which issues the Holy Word or the persona of the Bard, but does claim that the address to Earth is an authentic appeal reflecting Blake's desire of creating an "ultimate synthesis in which innocence might be wedded to experience, and goodness to knowledge" (46). The "Introduction" reveals that such a state is possible; like Wicksteed, Bowra interprets the stars which pierce the night as a glimpse of the eternity to be realized in the apocalypse to come. The "break of day" stands as a symbol of the new life in which innocence and experience will be transformed, and man's soul will attain a fuller, more active life in the creative imagination.

Claiming that Blake is "rigorously consistent in both his theory and practice as an artist," Northrop Frye examines the "Introduction" to discover some of the main principles of the poet's thought (57). In the "Introduction," Blake asserts the imagination's ability to unify time and bring into ordinary experience Christ's bodily presence, as well as the prophet's capacity to inspire the apocalypse which it is man's ability to realize. Frye also discovers in the "Introduction" the two perspectives of human life contained in the prophecies: a tragic vision of debased human existence, and a vision of life as part of a "redemptive divine comedy" (64).

The "Introduction" is primarily concerned, however, with the latter vision. Frye reads the Holy Word as Christ, or the Word of God, which is delivered by the Bard, the prophets and poets of this world. The Earth represents everything that Christ is trying to redeem. The Bard endowed with the Holy Word and the Earth he endeavors to redeem are thus Blake's version of the bride and bridegroom of Revelation: Christ and New Jerusalem. Moreover, each represents one of the three generating forces of Blake's symbolism. The Bard belongs to the class of the "Reprobate": genuine prophets and artists which call man to realize the apocalypse, but who are persecuted and ridiculed by humanity. The Earth belongs to the class of the "Redeemed": man, who is capable of responding to the Reprobate.

Donald Dike also identifies the Earth as man, or, more specifically, his soul, which is not only "lapsed," but chained by his reason and intellect. Dike reads the "Introduction" as a Blakean critique of man's imprisonment by his own intellectual faculties, delivered by imagery which recalls the recent revolution in astronomy. This revolution has taught that the earth is no longer the center of the universe; thus science has become the object controlling man's soul. If man would heed the exhortation of the Bard, however, the "starry pole" of man's "lapsed soul" could again become the metaphorical center of his universe.

John Holloway also reads the Bard's address to Earth as an authentic call to salvation, but perceives it as a message characterized by disjunction and non-relation. The "voice of the Bard" speaks of opposites and unrelateds: the "starry floor" of heaven and the "watry shore." The appeal itself also speaks of opposites and unrelateds: fallen humanity is addressed as "Earth." And even the apocalyptic moment is described as a break- up of integration: the Earth being asked to arise out of its corporeality.

Martin Price claims that existence in the world of experience both entails suffering and requires a response: either a corrupted and stifled energy which evinces only frustration, despair and surrender, or the honest wrath of rebellion. The Holy Word delivered by the Bard is the poetic genius within man calling him to a rebellion; the Bard summons man to realize his salvation from experience. "Earth's Answer" is not an outright condemnation of this message--not a response of despair and surrender. Rather, it is a precursor to the act of rebellion: a counterpart of Adam and Eve's resentment of their fallen state before recognizing that their Judge is also their Redeemer.

The final critic to read the Bard's address to Earth as an authentic call to salvation, Harold Pagliaro radically reinterprets this appeal as a plea for the redemption of humanity through the formation of a "spiritual body" (37). Pagliaro interprets the Bard as a purely spiritual essence "endowed with an universally valid poetic- religious truth," but possessed by an unfulfilled desire for the body of Earth (36). Thus the Bard and Earth are two parts of a single humanity: soul and body. Man's redemption will come when flesh becomes permeated by poetic intellect--energy and desire become wedded to consciousness.

Perceiving in the address to Earth both a genuine exhortation to salvation and a counterfeit appeal which it is right to reject, Robert Gleckner claims that there exist two distinct voices in the "Introduction" which present the dual purpose of the poem. The authentic appeal to salvation issues from the voice of the Bard. Sympathetic to man's plight, the Bard tells Earth of its capacity for self-salvation. His message reveals the source of man's oppression: innocence was precipitated into experience by the encroachment of Jehovah's law. But man can be redeemed and return to innocence if he will only recognize the possibility. The counterfeit appeal issues from the voice of the Holy Word--the lawgiver Jehovah described in Genesis 3:8-9. Feigning pity for man's condition, Jehovah is in actuality angered over man's spoiling of his universal law. His is the voice of the hypocrite; though calling man to return to innocence, he refuses to exert his power and bring him out of chaos. "Earth's Answer" is a justifiable rejection of the appeal to self-salvation because it is delivered only in response to the exhortation of the hypocritical Holy Word, and not the address of the Bard, which the Earth fails to hear.

Edward Larrissy refutes Gleckner's claim that there exist two voices in the "Introduction." Rather, Blake utilizes the intentional ambiguity of the address to Earth to inscribe his doubts about whether the nature of poetic form is inherently limiting or liberating (or both). If the Bard is a passive recipient of the words of a law-giving God, then the poet is not a prophet, but a priest who merely transforms his inspiration to the dead letter of the law, and poetic form is limiting. However, if the Bard is inspired by the Holy Word into active creation, then the poet is a prophet with the power to inspire others, and poetic form is liberating.

Unlike Gleckner and Larrissy, Harold Bloom perceives the Bard's address to Earth as an unambiguous and well-intentioned, but nevertheless mistaken appeal to salvation. Bloom states emphatically that the Bard of experience, though having much in common with Blake, is not the poet of the "Introduction." The Bard's songs are delivered by one wholly enmeshed in the state of experience; Blake's songs are delivered from beyond that state. Bloom finds evidence for this assertion in the nature of the Bard's address to Earth. This prophet conceives man's redemption in terms of Christian dualism: man is a "lapsed soul" who must transcend his temporal body and environment. By contrast, Blake's heaven is a radical renewal of this world, in which body and soul are inseparable. Bloom accepts Frye's definition of the "Reprobate" as the class of true prophets, and the "Redeemed" as the class of men capable of redemption, but insists that while Blake belongs to the former, the Bard remains a member of the latter.

Although he also reads the address to Earth as a mistaken appeal to salvation, E.D. Hirsch believes Blake to be the Bard. Hirsch reads the "Introduction" as a transitional poem in which Blake had not yet crystallized his vision of the true form of man's redemption. The Bard's appeal to Earth (fallen man) combines what Blake was later to regard as authentic prophecy with orthodox pieties which he would soon reject: the Bard's call is not for spiritual renewal in man alone, but for a total renewal of the earth. Hirsch takes this latter portion of the Bard's address as an appeal to man to renew his perception of and participation in the natural world. Thus the Bard's call can be paraphrased, "until the daybreak of eternity, the beauty of heaven and earth is sufficient fulfillment in the temporal world"--an appeal Blake would soon abhor.

Unlike Bloom and Hirsch, Michael Ackland reads the appeal to Earth as not misguided, but malicious. Ackland claims that in the "Introduction" Blake subverts traditional accounts of the Fall by Scripture and Milton in order to challenge the reader to contest such orthodox views. Ackland interprets the Bard and Earth as Blake's hero, man, whose divine humanity is suppressed by a God who perpetuates spiritual night. This God is the Holy Word, which should be identified with the Old Testament Jehovah of Genesis 3:8- 9, and it is He who delivers the exhortation to Earth. Jehovah's speech is cruel: rather than exerting his power to precipitate man's redemption, the voice of the Holy Word admonishes Earth to return and rise, knowing all the while that He is responsible for man's fallen state.

Like Bloom, Zachary Leader reads the Bard as a misguided prophet of redemption whose appeal to the Earth is undermined by the manner in which he proclaims it. While the Bard earnestly endeavors to summon man to a realization of his capacity for divinely creative power, the corruption of the Holy Word he delivers hinders his message. The voice behind the Holy Word is neither the Christ of Milton's Paradise Lost, nor the Jehovah of Genesis 3:8-9, but an unequal amalgamation of the two. The Bard's instinctive goodness--he is the Piper of innocence who has evolved out of that state--allows him to perceive Christ- like qualities in the Jehovah of the Old Testament. But the message he accepts and transmits is "perilously close to that of a false God"--perilously close to the false God Urizen (134).

Claiming that the Lambeth books function as Blake's own guide to understanding the "symbolism of oppression" in the "Introduction" and "Earth's Answer," Stanley Gardner moves one step beyond Leader and names Urizen as the voice of the Holy Word which directs the Bard's counterfeit appeal to Earth (96). The "voice of the Bard" is that of "the nameless shadowy female," and offers man's "lapsed soul" no more than illusory redemption. Earth realizes this, and in the following poem recognizes the "starry floor" and "watry shore" for what they are: "starry Jealousy" and a prison.

--Mark Rollins (December 1995)

Bibliography

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