By Clover Carroll
The first quatrain of William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” is well-known and beloved by many. This perfect gem of mystical imagery suggests that the ability to see the cosmic in everyday natural phenomena—such as a wild flower or the palm of one’s hand—is a blessing and a rare gift. Combined with the title, these lines suggest that such visions would be auguries of innocence. An “augury” is an omen or prophecy, the foretelling of future events or discovery of what is hidden or obscure by supernatural or magical means. The ability to see these wonders is a sign of innocence and purity, especially that of children who are closer to Paradise, or of the inner child that Blake wishes to awaken within each of us. As critic William Brewer points out, these lines “assert that something infinitesimal can expand into immensity.” Each line moves from the abstract to the concrete, from the infinite to the particular. The elegant alternating rhymes match the graceful sophistication of the thought, with internal sound effects such as the consonance of repeated d sounds and the assonance of in, infinity, and eternity. These powerful lines seem to defy logic and blow our minds into another dimension; they “question…the absolute nature of space and time” (Brewer).
Perhaps it is the wild flower or the hint of sandy beach that causes me to associate these lines with spring. The rest of the poem, however, is far more simplistic and decidedly strange, ranging in subject matter from faith to war to the end of the world. For Blake, this quatrain only serves to introduce an extremely long, almost rambling poem that totals 132 lines. For the sake of brevity, I have excerpted less than a third of them here. It consists of a series of rhymed couplets, less melodious and less elegant than the opening, each expressing a proverb or aphorism cataloging a crime against nature (which Blake equates with a state of innocence). To harm a skylark, hunt a deer, kill a butterfly, or ignore the needs of a beggar are equally reprehensible and collectively will result in humanity’s demise. The proverbs are “wildly incongruous ….[strung] together in a bewildering succession” (Brewer). Many of these couplets repeat the movement from microcosm to macrocosm established in the first quatrain, and most also contain a clear moral judgment, suggesting that such cruelty and inhumanity has consequences. Blake especially condemns the “doubter” who suppresses the natural faith of childhood, which he believes is closer to existence in Paradise. The singsong rhythm and predictable rhymes themselves suggest a childlike innocence on the part of the poet.
William Blake (1757-1827) was a mystic and a visionary himself. He began seeing visions as young as 4, and at 10 saw “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.” As an adult he reported being visited by his dead brother’s spirit. Some contemporaries believed him insane, but 19th-century scholar William Rossetti (brother to poets Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti) characterized him as a “glorious luminary.” Blake drew on this gift to become a highly influential poet, painter, and engraver, ushering in the Romantic movement in English literature. He is considered a “pre-Romantic” because the other leading Romantic poets—Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth—lived and wrote somewhat later. “Auguries of Innocence” expresses the spirit of this literary movement in its reverence for nature and celebration of the innocent joy and spontaneity of childhood before falling into the greed, corruption, venality, and doubt embodied by industrial civilization. The Romantics valued emotion and imagination over reason, and rebelled against the abuse of class power. Partially in reaction to the scientific enlightenment of the 18th century, Blake and later romantic authors celebrated the values of freedom and equality for all social classes that gave rise to the American (1776) and French (1789) revolutions.
Blake developed an elaborate personal mythology, set forth in a series of prophetic books such as Jerusalem and The Book of Thel, which combined biblical Christian values such as sacrifice and forgiveness with Greek and Norse mythology. He rejected all conventional organized religion, especially the doctrinal separation of body and spirit. Blake’s best known work, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, published in 1794, sets out to show “the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.” The Songs of Innocence are light-hearted and optimistic, whereas the Songs of Experience lament the corruption and evil of war, abuse of class power, and the Industrial Revolution. The most famous of these are “The Lamb” from Innocence and “The Tyger” from Experience. Other well-known poems include “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” “London,” “A Sick Rose,” and “A Poison Tree.”
Blake illustrated not only all of his own work but other commissioned works including the Book of Job and Dante’s Divine Comedy, which was incomplete when he died. He is credited with producing the first children’s picture book. His influence in literature, art, and philosophy is still felt today.
While the admonitions that follow may be less ethereal, the first four lines of this poem transport us beyond ourselves. I expect most of us have experienced rare moments of transcendence such as those Blake captures with his memorable words. Their deft insight reminds us to look beyond physical reality and, through a combination of imagination and faith, see the sacred in the every day. Blake would surely agree with Antoine de St. Exupéry, whose Little Prince counsels that “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” The mind’s eye, on the other hand, is capable of comprehending the miracle of creation.
Note: I am indebted to Ebsco’s online Literary Reference Center many of the ideas collected here, especially William D. Brewer’s “Auguries of Innocence” in Masterplots II: Poetry, revised edition, 2002.