It is strange how the worship of the Christ-child penetrated the hard old Roman-built world. It was like the perfume of a lily, of a mass of lilies, whose roots have broken rocky soil, whose shining whiteness enchants the air. An infant conquered the nations; the human race lifted up its eyes and sang a new song.
Slowly, through those centuries of a crumbling empire and a resilient faith, the perfume, the song reacted in beauty in men’s minds, and the beauty took to itself form and colour and rhythm, became incarnate in churches and statues, gorgeous in tapestries and paintings, vocal in poetry and music. The human spirit passed from Caesar to Saint Francis, from the Colosseum to Chartres Cathedral, from pagan frescoes to Fra Angelico, from Greek choruses to Palestrina, from Virgil and the cynical later poets of a disillusioned autocracy to Dante and the epics and lyrics of new languages seeded and nourished by the old.
It was a rebirth into innocence, child-likeness, naïveté – once more the magic moment, the early spring. One thinks inevitably of certain pictures: the solemnity, the chill sunshine of that moment are perpetuated for us by Giotto in his Assisi frescoes; and another aspect – its tenderness, its softly coloured gaiety – by Fra Angelico in many paintings. The holy friar’s Annunciation at the Prado breathes ecstatic worship of the Christ-child – its sacred innocence is like the first smile of infancy; and his Paradise, wreathed with haloed saints, is as fresh and fair as the gay blooming of hepaticas in April.
Nativities: Birth and ReBirth
Through various highways and byways of medieval literature also one may follow this spirit; songs with the dew on them were sung in many languages by bards sacred and profane. In early English poetry we find in certain ballads and lyrics a quality as child-like as Fra Angelico. This Christmas carol of the fifteenth century is of the same blue-and-gold delicacy:
I sing of a maiden
That is matcheless;
King of all kings
To her son she chose.
He came all so still
There his mother was,
As dew in April
That falleth on the grass.
He came all so still
To his mother’s bower,
As dew in April
That falleth on the flower.
He came all so still
There his mother lay,
As dew in April
That falleth on the spray.
Mother and maiden
Was never more but she.
Well may such a lady
Goddes mother be.
We all remember Chaucer’s exquisite salutation to the daisy, and those opening lines of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, which catch one’s breath with intoxicating fragrance. The beauty of Nature’s birth-song is in such poems, a beauty which Nature repeats annually but which man loses in the meshes of civilisation and sophistication. The Elizabethans were near enough to their country’s origins to catch it in many songs; we have only to think of Shakespeare’s many lyrics – Blow, blow, thou winter wind, Hark, hark, the lark – and of one or two each by Marlowe, Green, Campion, Ben Jonson and others, to realise how far we have gone from all that fine careless rapture. Even the lesser poets scented the morning air; here is a breath of it from John Daniel, whose songs with the music were published in 1606:
Thou pretty Bird, how do I see
Thy silly state and mine agree!
For thou a prisoner art;
So is my heart.
Thou sing’st to her, and so do I address
My music to her ear that’s merciless;
But herein doth the difference lie –
That thou art graced, so am not I;
Thou singing liv’st, and I must singing die.
Listening to William Blake
As we leave these early centuries, that special note of dewy freshness, of blissful innocent naïveté, becomes extremely rare in English song. It was scarcely heard again until William Blake lifted up a tiny flute-like voice against a noisy world. No one listened at first. The Poetical Sketches, published in 1783, and the Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1789 and 1794) antedated the whole romantic revival – Byron and Burns were infants, Coleridge a child, Shelley and Keats unborn. In a few years the grand chorus of their voices drowned out his modest piping; whereupon, quite satisfied, he took refuge with his brush and his etching-needle, creating masterpieces like the Job and the Dante series because he couldn’t help it. And after a time he returned to poetry in those mystical and symbolical Prophetic Books which nobody, perhaps not even himself, has ever completely understood.
The centenary of Blake’s death was observed last August, but it had been celebrated a year or more in advance by the superb edition of his complete Writings put out by the Nonesuch Press, and by Foster Damon’s monumental study of his Philosophy and Symbols. At last the cards were on the table; long-hidden manuscripts were in print, and the dark places of his mystical philosophy were exposed by a sympathetic mind.
The whole presents the spectacle of a modern spirit living in eternity as completely as any prophet or saint of the past; living in isolation, by his own inner light, as utterly as any Asiatic hermit on his mountain-top. No wonder that his art separates itself from any bondage to his immediate period, that it shines with that light from within quite regardless of contemporary flickers and flares.
In its earlier phases – in the three books of lyrics above mentioned, it returns to the crystal clarity which we have hinted at in early English songs; instinctively it strips free of all the eighteenth-century formulae and resumes Elizabethan simplicity. No fifteenth-century carol is more dewy that this brief lyric, Infant Joy:
‘I have no name —
I am but two days old.’—
What shall I call thee?
‘I happy am,
Joy is my name.’
Sweet joy befall thee!
Sweet joy, but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee;
Thou dost smile —
I sing the while,
Sweet joy befall thee!
And here is The Shepherd:
How sweet is the shepherd’s sweet lot!
From the morn to the evening he strays;
He shall follow his sheep all the day,
And his tongue shall be filled with praise.
For he hears the lamb’s innocent call,
And he hears the ewe’s tender reply;
He is watchful while they are in peace,
For they know when their shepherd is nigh.
These are like Fra Angelico’s angels for purity, like a crystal urn for clarity. They are ‘songs of innocence’ indeed.
But Blake’s crystal urn holds the wine of wisdom, clouded with pity for all the sorrows of the world.
Every tear from every eye
Becomes a babe in eternity,
he says in Auguries of Innocence, which begins with this famous quatrain:
To see the world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
Blake experienced eternity in his own little hour, and he set down the experience in his poems. One feels it in the lyrics “in a peculiar bright purity of sound and sense, as free from any human smell as mathematics, yet as full of music as a live song. Joy is like sunlight in them, tears like rain, and anger like tempest.” In the Prophetic Books this lofty religious experience of the infinite becomes enveloped in symbolic utterance, in a personally invented symbolism which it takes years of research to penetrate. But in this forest one comes upon sun-lit clearings – passages of magnificent inspiration unsurpassed for loftiness and lyric beauty. Here, for example, is the poet’s impassioned code of love and forgiveness:
Thou angel of the presence divine,
That didst create this body of mine,
Wherefore hast thou writ these laws,
And created Hell’s dark jaws?
My presence I will take from thee;
A cold leper thou shalt be.
Though thou wast so pure and bright
That Heaven was impure in thy sight,
Though thy both turned Heaven pale,
Though thy covenant built Hell’s jail,
Though thou didst all to chaos roll
With the serpent for its soul,
Still the breath divine does move,
And the breath divine is Love.
And, recognizing hatred as ‘a begging for love’, he continues with a superb prophecy of love’s conquest:
Come ye forth,
Fallen fiends of heavenly birth,
That have forgot your ancient love,
And driven away my trembling Dove,
You shall bow before her feet;
You shall lick the dust for meat;
And though you cannot love, but hate,
Shall be beggars at Love’s gate.
Besides the white-hot passion of Blake’s faith, and the lyric fervour of its utterance, most of the religious poetry in English becomes cold and formal, mere acceptance of standardised creeds. He was his own architect in things spiritual; he trod his own domain.
Mr. Damon charts this domain for those who would wander there; as Robert Hillyer says in his Dial review, “It is clear that Mr. Damon has written a book which must serve as a foundation to all future study of William Blake … the system of philosophy unveiled in these pages is of that highest type of mysticism, which however deliberately obscure in its expression, is wholly simple in its significance: the union of the human soul with that God dwelling in it who must be released in eventual perfection by a struggle through the imperfections of material existence.”
I have quoted above a few phrases from a singularly penetrating anonymous article on The Poetry of Blake in the London Times of December first, 1921; and I may as well close this belated centenary tribute with its final paragraph:
Blake was a man imperfect like the rest of us, and his writings and drawings are full of perversity, failure, wilfulness. But the great artist is a man who can now and again free himself in his art of all imperfection and be no longer himself but Everyman. Blake knew this – it was an article of his faith. Through all his long life he was attempting that freedom, and, because he saw it as an end more clearly than other poets, so did he at times achieve it more completely. There are no words in our language so unalterable as his.
Blake’s words are as firmly drawn as the beautiful little figures in his etchings, and each is as essential to his scheme. Like the morning stars on that most wonderful plate of all the wonderful Job series, they “sing together”.
William Blake’s Song of Innocence Little Lamb, beautifully set to music by John Tavener and sung here by the choir of King’s College Cambridge. As one commentator has noted, this is “an incredible haunting but beautiful song. The words and the music performed by perhaps the best choral choir out there and in the acoustical perfect King’s College Chapel.”
The above article is an edited version of ‘Christmas and William Blake’ by Harriet Monroe. First published in: Poetry: A Magazine of Verse Vol. 31, No. 3 (Dec., 1927). To read the full edition please click here.
For more on Blake’s radical take of the Nativity, see The Rebirth of the Right Hemisphere: William Blake’s illustrations of On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.