25 July 2008

Confronting misconceptions about Blake

Northrop Frye does this brilliantly in the first few pages:
  • "[I]t is only by cutting out two-thirds of Blake's work that [one] will be able to wedge the rest of it in with that of the minor pre-Romantics."
  • "The prophesies form what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the language, and most of the more accessible editions of Blake omit them altogether, or print only those fragments which seem to the editor to have a vaguely purplish cast."
  • One prevailing impression is "that Blake is to be regarded as an ultrasubjective primitive whose work involuntarily reflects his immediate mood. The Songs of Innocence are then to be taken at their face value as the ourpourings of a naïve and childlike spontaneity, and the Songs of Experience as the bitter disillusionment resulting from maturity--for when Blake engraved the latter he was no longer a child of thirty-two but a grown man of thirty-seven. It is logical inference from this that the prophecies can reflect only an ecstatic self-absorption on which it is unnecessary for a critic to intrude."
  • "It is pathetic to read his letters and see how buoyant is his hope of being understood in his own time, and how wistful is the feeling that he must depend on posterity for appreciation. And it was not only recognition he wanted: he had a very strong sense of his personal responsibility both to God and to society to keep on producing the kind of imaginative art he believed in. He despised obscurity, hated all kinds of mystery, and derided the idea that poets do not fully comprehend what they are writing."
  • Frye insists that "all of Blake's poetry, from the shortest lyric to the longest prophesy, must be taken as a unit and, mutatis mutandis, judged by the same standards."
  • He also believes (quite logically) that Blake should "be placed in his historical and cultural context as a poet who, though original, was not aboriginal, and was neither a freak nor a sport."
  • "Further, Blake's poems are poems, and must be studied as such. Any attempt to explain them in terms of something that is not poetry is bound to fail."
  • Also, "No one who has read three lines of our straightforward and outspoken poet can imagine that he wished to be pursued by a band of superstitious dilettantes into the refuge of a specialized cult. Whatever Blakes prophecies may be, they can hardly be code messages. They may need interpretation, but not deciphering".


Jacob Russell said...

Always a pleasure to see someone drawing attention to Frye's wonderful study, Fearful Symmetry.

amcorrea said...

Very glad to oblige! THIS is literary criticism. I can't believe it took me so long to get to this fantastic book. Frye's words are incandescent.

Engraved Pens said...

One disadvantage of browsing online bookstores is that you can't simply skim the cover blurbs; sometimes you just have to settle for the opinions of strangers like me. So it may be helpful to read the quotes on the back cover of my copy of 'Fearful Symmetry.'

"To say it is a magnificent, extraordinary book is to praise it as it should be praised, but in doing so one gives little idea of the huge scope of the book and of its fiery understanding . Several great poets have written of Blake, but this book, I believe, is the first to show the full magnitude of Blake's mind, its vast creative thought." -- Edith Sitwell, 'The Spectator'

"According as we agree or disagree with Mr. Frye's contention we shall decide finally on the supremacy of his book. In following the structure of Blake's total vision and relating it to the thought of his age he has triumphantly carried out a task which, given the giant shape of the material, cannot help being immense. His cadences, by sheer explanatory devotion, approach the sonorities of Blake's own." -- 'Times Literary Supplement'

"Frye conducts his ambitious study with unflagging energy, great enthusiasm, and immense erudition." -- 'Poetry'

"An intelligent and beautifully written critical interpretation of the poetry and symbolic thought of William Blake..." -- 'New Yorker'

My opinion: Northrop Frye's literary criticism manages to shift the ground underfoot in the same rare way Blake's poetry does. Frye was the first to crack Blake's code, remove from him the labels of Mystic and Nutcase, and reveal him as a poet who systematically recreates the world. Frye taught Blake to Jesuits, Communist organizers, deans of women, and angry young poets. He was continually pleased to encounter doctors, housewives, clergymen, teachers, blue-collar workers, and shopkeepers, all with a great and deep appreciation of Blake.

Frye's deep appreciation and admiration for Blake comes through on every page, six times over. I reread this book about every five years, each time coming away seeing the world upside down, inside out, and worth renovating.