If Blake was not simply stoned out of his mind, then what explanation can there be for this troubling work?
This was written for Dr. Ault on January 24, 1994 …
“chased by spectres of abstraction”
The greatest congruence I find between the ‘boat scene’ in Wordsworth’s The Prelude and Blake’s Urizen is that after numerous readings of each, often in those troubled hours just after sunset when it seems as if nothing makes any sense and the days are passing much too quickly, I begin to feel a vague but unable-to-ignore throbbing somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind. Aside from that, the poems don’t appear, to me at least, to contain any great congruences. Unmistakable differences, however, abound. Since no other member of the class seemed to protest (or, to be perfectly straightforward, writhe in agony) upon learning of the assignment, I find myself in a delicate situation. I think that it’s possible to use Wordsworth’s poem as an instrument to better understand Blake’s poem, even though I highly doubt that that was Wordsworth’s intention. Somewhere (it was probably the back of a postcard) I read a quotation which has stuck in my head for years. A man named Jean Cocteau said, “The worst tragedy for a poet is to be admired through being misunderstood.” I don’t believe Blake would have had much problem empathizing with this remark. Wordsworth’s Prelude, although apparently symbolic and metaphoric and containing all sorts of deeper meaning, is readable and, during moments of illuminated perspective, partially understandable. Blake’s poetry, though, appears to me to have been written with palpable contempt for the reader, whomever the reader should be. It’s as if he set out with the primary aim of confusing and annoying anyone who happened to take notice of his writing. The first time I read Urizen I thought it was simply the ravings of a man under the influence of some really terrific drugs. Then I decided that any drug which could produce visions such as these would render the user unable to a) physically control the muscles needed to write out said visions as they occurred and b) remember the visions once motor control was regained. If Blake was not simply stoned out of his mind, then what explanation can there be for this troubling work? Desperation and frustration are the first words that come to mind; and they make a more solid case for themselves after reading and re-reading the ‘boat scene’ in Prelude. Both seem to have been written by men who felt very separate, desperate, and frustrated. In Urizen this can be seen simply in the number of times Blake used words like alone, separation, void, unseen, unknown, and darkness. In Prelude it is a bit more obvious – Wordsworth came right out and wrote of a “solitude or blank desertion” in his thoughts after the ‘incident’ which shook him up so much. Now, personally I don’t see what’s so earth-shattering about rowing an ‘elfin pinnace’ across a lake and then seeing that a mountain is situated on the other side of another mountain which was previously thought to be the horizon. But I guess if you’re an overly contemplative fellow of the sort W.W. is, it could hold some deep meaning, although I doubt if it would make me unable to view the world in the same way, even for a few days. Is W.W. trying to say that he was astonished to realize that there is always something beyond what we see as the horizon, that no matter what is going on in life, there is always something else out there? It’s a possibility, I suppose. (Wierd things going on in the beyond appears to be a cornerstone of Urizen.) It’s pretty difficult to determine who/what is narrating Urizen, but the narrator does a good job of making us doubt what we see and what we read. Characters (and I use this term loosely – how can a ‘fathomless void’ or an emotion be a character?) float in and out of the poem, sometimes existing with no apparent purpose. Ideas and physicalities difficult to envision are brought together and made analogous in ways that actually cause pain when pondered for too long. There is nothing beautiful in Urizen; it doesn’t flow. It’s actually rather scary, I wouldn’t recommend it to a child to read. It’s too dark. It reminds me of the cry for help/attention exhibited by young teenage girls who wear all black and pierce their ears fifteen times and walk around writing bad poetry and listening to depressind Depeche Mode songs. To me, like W.W.’s Prelude, it is less a grand satire or metaphor than it is the struggling moan of a man lost and confused by the things surrounding him – an effort to cope.
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