Bob Rodgers: “Recovering William Blake”


A memoir of Blake, Frye and the 60s from Bob Rodgers.  Bob is a former grad student of Frye’s who became a documentary filmmaker.

When I set out for university my motives were not entirely laudable. Movies about universities made their social life look appealing and I wanted a way out of Flin Flon anyway. Also, in the 1950s,  if you managed to scrape through matriculation with a B average university was just something you did.  Tuition was cheap, summer jobs plentiful and lucrative, so why not? What friends who had gone before me said was: “Don’t take Science or Engineering. They’re hard. Take Arts”.

By second year I was having a splendid time. I played basketball for the University of Manitoba Bisons and endless hands of Bridge in the student union cafeteria. I got fake ID so I could drink at the Pembina beer parlor. I went to movie previews on Academy Road every Thursday, and to curling bees and dances on weekends, and there was a whole residence of pretty girls to date so long as you got them in by eleven. In all of these things I don’t remember being much different from anyone else I knew in Arts.

With one exception. One fellow called Lennie who sat beside me in my poetry course was unlike my basketball friends and my home town friends. He was a Ukrainian from the mysterious “North End”, a section of Winnipeg beyond the CPR tracks that was as foreign to me as Bukovina. If a professor assigned a library book and you got round to looking it up it was always gone. I’d find out later Lennie had it.

Sitting in the cafeteria one day Lennie said: “What do you make of William Blake?” I was circumspect. I remembered reading “The Tyger”, “Ah! Sunflower”,  and “The Chimney Sweep” in High School, and we had all grown up singing Blake’s “Jerusalem”on occasions of patriotic fervor for the British Empire. I wasn’t ready to admit to him that I had been trying to read Blake’s epic poem, ‘Jerusalem’, and found it impenetrable. He pushed the book he’d been reading toward me and went for coffee refills. It was The Collected Works of William Blake, the Keynes edition of 1956. He knew I fancied Milton, which he didn’t. He left a page open where I read: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” I read the lines several times, trying to figure out what Blake was saying.

My new friend returned with coffee and sat watching as I skipped through the passages he had flagged in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell section.

Exuberance is beauty. (I liked that idea. For the same reason I preferred Anthony to Octavius.)

How do you know but evr’y bird that cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five? (That was the one I couldn’t get my head around at all.)

The cistern contains: the fountain overflows. (Same thing.)

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. (Whoa there. I was learning about excess in my extra-curricular activities, and thought it more likely they led in the opposite direction.)

What is now proved was once only imagined. (Well all right. So you don’t invent or discover anything without having imagination.)

The cut worm forgives the plough. (Is that what they meant when they said you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs? Not exactly. A worm isn’t like an egg and a plough isn’t like an omelette.)

Better murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires. (That was an unsettling one. Like some Nietzsche things I’d been reading it sounded dangerous.)

I picked my way through these startling lines as if tackling a dish of walnuts with my teeth. Some cracked open right away, others not at all. When I looked up Lennie was watching me as if I were an egg he expected to hatch. I attribute that very moment to the beginning of my transformation from aspiring to become just little Mr. BA to a genuine desire to learn something. I expect that’s what’s supposed to happen when you go to university. Suddenly a world opened up.

I did two things I had never done before. I began spending time in the library, reading everything I could find on Blake. And I bought my first hard cover–Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry. Later I headed for graduate school in Toronto to take Frye’s celebrated course on Symbolism and the next year his course on Blake. They turned out to be pretty much the same thing which was fine with me. I could have taken the course a third time with no fear of boredom.

It was at the time Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism came out, a book being heralded as the greatest work of literary criticism since Aristotle’s Poetics. The period of the Smallfrye and the Frydologues began and you had to be careful not to be trampled in the rush to what the categorists began calling ‘archetypal criticism’. I adopted Nietzsche’s dictum that what begins in the daylight often proceeds at night. After managing to get half way through the first Essay I set The Anatomy aside until I got older. But that didn’t reduce my esteem for Frye. When reading my way into the literary critics of the time, my habit was to underline cogent insights in pencil for future reference. By page ten of Fearful Symmetry I realized I had underlined everything. That’s when I put my pencil down and decided to consider the entire book underlined. It was the best work of literary criticism I had ever come across.

By the mid 1960s I had become part of a gang in Winnipeg and another in Toronto who were beginning to see themselves as intellectual insurgents and sansculottes determined to overthrow the existing order with words. Blake was our standard bearer: “He who desires and acts not breeds pestilence”. Well of course! How better to sum up the counter culture attack on sexual repression so enthusiastically subscribed to by our parents? And yes of course; “Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by incapacity” and “those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.”  Blake’s recognition of pious sexual prohibition sounded the right chord: … “As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys”. Blake became the lodestone for our opposition to what we considered the sanctimony and arid moralism of our parents’ generation.

Holden Caulfield and James Dean prefigured the changes to come. Then Ginsberg and Kerouac and Mailer. Gurus of all stripes followed, from Marcuse and Illych to Huxley and Laing and Leary. Still it was Blake who best caught our dawning sense (not always induced by Marijuana) of a fresh way of perceiving the world:

    If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

    For  man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

But it wasn’t all sex and drugs. Blake’s social voice carried proportionate weight. “Pity could be no more if we did not make someone poor;” “Prisons are built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion.” We were at a time of worldwide revolution among the young and we knew it. Alongside our self-directed efforts to cleanse the doors of perception there was a genuine concern for the disenfranchised of the earth, and for the health of the earth itself.

Blake’s lyric poems and simpler proverbs were key for us, perhaps because at one level they could be understood by a child. But so were his difficult long poems–America, Europe, Urizen, Ahania, Los, The Four Zoas, Milton, Jerusalem, or at least sections of them.. We never pretended we could decipher them with confidence but we found passages in them that, with Frye’s help, spoke to us. Besides Blake’s fearsome tigers of wrath there was a sympathy for the suffering of creation. It wasn’t cloying or sentimental. It touched our better side. It was an expression of what we needed to keep our hopes up.

    • It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements

    • To hear the dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughter house moan;

    • To see a god in every wind & a blessing in every blast;

    • To hear sounds of love in the thunder storm that destroys our enemy’s house;

    • To rejoice in the blight that covers his field, & the sickness that cuts off his children,

    • While our olive & vine sing & laugh round our door and our children bring

    • fruits and flowers.

    • Then the groan & the dolour are quite forgotten, & the slave grinding at the mill,

    • And the captive in chains, & the poor in the prison, and the soldier in the field

    • When the shatter’d bone hath laid him groaning among the happier dead.

    •  It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity:

    Thus could I sing and thus rejoice: but it is not so with me.

And always there were those joyful lines to fall back upon: “The head sublime, the heart pathos, the genitals beauty, the hands and feet proportion, the human form divine.”

What we didn’t realize in our near veneration of Blake was that we were a tiny part of something else, one of the most remarkable recoveries in the history of English Letters in the past two hundred years. Way out there, far beyond our circle, Blake was being rediscovered. You couldn’t say he was being revived. He hadn’t been ‘vived’ in the first place. His claims of visionary conversations with angelic beings, and the creation in his long poems of a mythological universe of his own making, branded him a mystic, an eccentric, and probably a madman.

In his lifetime (1757-1837) Blake was best known in London artistic circles as a competent engraver. When he died and for a century thereafter he would never be mentioned in the same breath as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, or Shelley, or later on Tennyson or Browning. Today he is more likely to be found in the pantheon along with Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. How so?

Many hands brought about his becoming recognized as one of the greatest of English poets, none more instrumentally than Northrop Frye in Fearful Symmetry (1947). This was the skeleton key that opened the door into Blake’s astonishing imagination. Scholars like Harold Bloom, Hazard Adams, David Erdman, and a host of others broadened the frontier. Still the most eloquent prose summation of Blake’s vision remains for me a passage from Frye’s Fearful Symmetry:

What we see in nature is our own body turned inside out. From our natural perspective we cannot see this for the same reason that a fly crawling on a fresco cannot see the picture: we are too small, too close, too unintelligent, and have naturally the wrong kind of eye. But the imagination sees that the labyrinthine intricacies of the movements of heavenly bodies reflect the labyrinth of our brains. It sees that lakes and pools reflect the passive mirror of the eye. It sees that the revolving and warming sun is the beating and flaming heart of the fallen Albion and it is reproduced in the “Globe of Blood” within our own bodies, our heart. It sees that the tide flows and ebbs in the rhythm of Albion’s fallen lungs. It sees that the ridges of mountains across the world are Albion’s fractured spine. It sees that the natural circulation of water is a human circulation of blood. It sees that nature is the fossilized form of a God-Man who has, unlike other fossils, the power to come to life again. It sees that what vibration-frequencies are to colour, what a prosodic analysis is to a poem, what an anatomized cadaver is to a body, so the physical world is to the mental one, the seamy side of its reality. And it sees all this because it realizes that when we see ourselves as imprisoned in a huge concave vault of sky we are seeing from the point of view of a head that is imprisoned in a concave vault of bone.

As the 1970s descended on our small circle of would-be reformers we were not alone as our hopes for a radically transformed world faded. But Blake never deserted us. Bad as things got–life as commodity, the money greed, the endless wars, the genocides–Blake kept us believing that our aspirations were worth it:

Permanent, & not lost not lost or vanish’d & every little act,

Word, work & wish, that has existed, all remaining still …

Shadowy to those who dwell not in them, mere possibilities

But to those who enter into them they seem the only substances.

In time I learned to come to terms with that once troubling line: “Better to murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” The key word is ‘nurse’. Blake is not advocating infanticide. Long before Freud he is identifying the sickness that can be brought on by repressed desire. In Blake’s world desire is the creator of joy, a newborn thing. To foster suppression is symbolically to smother a child..

As for that other symbolic creature, the ‘bird that cuts the airy way’, I remain uncertain. In condensed form the passage implies an entire epistemology. “Reality is in the eye of the beholder…. The eye altering alters all ….  I see not with my eye but through my eye”. Blake says these things elsewhere. What we know about his life confirms the idea. He did not just have occasional intimations of immortality like Wordsworth. He saw eternity in a grain of sand day in and day out. Perception was not the result of outside objects impressing themselves on his mind. His mind’s eye created what he saw and what he saw regularly was an apocalyptic land of the heart’s desire called Jerusalem. It was this that made him a true visionary.

Among the tyrannies and terrors that stalk the world today Blake remains a voice of liberation. His lifelong campaign against all forms of oppression of the human enterprise, what he calls “The Mental War”, remains even more relevant than ever before.

Some of us from that old crop of Frye students went on to academe. Most of us pursued careers that left little time for sustained engagement in the Blakean universe. Four of us from this second group got together recently to reminisce. On one thing we were unanimous: that time we spent with Frye and Blake was the most important time of our lives.

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