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Friday 16 July 2010

William Blake: The Fly


Little Fly,
Thy summer's play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

William Blake: The Fly, from Songs of Experience, 1794

William Blake: from The Song of Los, 1795, relief etching with colour printing and hand colouring: upper image from Copy A, British Museum, London; lower image from Copy E, Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, Ca.(images via the William Blake Archive)




Thanks for these three great Blake poems (Fly and two Chimney Sweepers) -- prompted by? -- the towhee's chweeeee (below) suddenly sounding an uncanny echo of those boys' "'weep, 'weep, 'weep, 'weep!". . . .


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
ridge, towhee calling chweeeee in right
foreground, no sound of wave in channel

sketch included in letter to,
on paper watermarked by

comes to presence, therefore,
as unconcealed is still

cloudless blue sky reflected in channel,
sunlit white of osprey circling into it

TC said...

Steve, several Blake "prompts": I've been interested of late in

1. the ekphrastic element in his work;


2. the fluency achieved by his technigue of painting "wet" (and quickly!) over a colour engraving on a copper plate, which he invented for The Song of Los, work that is indeed



comes to presence;


3. the "cottage" (crazy) aspect of his production;


4. the social sensitivity (The Chimneysweeps), even if its employment sometimes involves

swinging with a hammer...

all for a good cause & c.

John B-R said...

Didn't his brother Robert visited him after death and brought him the technique?

I've just spent the past month reading the prophetic books in "Erdman" order (which mean I should have "bifurcated" over to the the unengraved ones (Tiriel, Vala, etc) before tackling Milton and Jerusalem, if I wanted to stay chronological, but I didn't, I was too far in before it occurred to me)> I never realized before quite how methodical his "cottage craziness" was. Now that I've finished Milton, I'm about to begin either Jerusalem of Vala, or the Four Zoas, now that it's occurred to me to bifurcate ... any opinion which is better read first?

Speaking of Milton, did any *other* poet ever become such an otherworldly epic hero of another poet's poem? All I can think of is Virgil in Dante, but he's not transformed nearly as far as Milton is ...

John B-R said...

Sorry for the typos. That 1st sentence reveals the dangers of cotnpaste when in hands like mine; and of course there's no such poem that I know of called Jerusalem of Vala ...

Joe Safdie said...

Ah, one of those great confluences of coincidence . . . I love it when that happens.

First, to John B-R -- I'd read The Four Zoas before Milton and Jerusalem, if only to get the basics of his entire cosmological mythos down. It has some of the most gorgeous poetry he ever wrote in Book IX.

Tom -- as it happens, I spent a good part of yesterday re-reading Northrop Frye's Fearful Symmetry, which I'm pleased to report still holds up after all these years. I know this threatens to become a fairly large comment, but I have to quote a bit of it here. He's talking about Enion, an "emanation" of one of the four Zoas:

"She knows only that she can never be comforted as long as pain exists, and that she will not cease to be a wandering and mourning spirit until nature has become again the 'happy garden-state' it once was . . . She is the 'vain shadow of hope' which finds everything short of a complete apocalypse hopeless. She is the part of our minds which dimly realizes that all pleasure is at least partly a dream under an anesthetic. Something is always suffering horribly somewhere, and we can only find pleasure by ignoring that fact. We must ignore it up to a point, or go mad: but in the abyss of consciousness to which Enion has been banished, there lurks the feeling that joy is based on exclusion, that the Yule log can blaze cheerfully only when the freezing beggars in the streets are, for the moment, left to freeze. It is a terrible song that Enion sings . . ."


I got back into Blake this summer because of the tribute to Jack Clarke Mike Boughn is collecting, a project to which several people who visit this blog might be contributing. Besides his ekphrasis, it's always been important for me to remember that he was buddies with Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, and stayed radical until the end . . .

TC said...


"...did any *other* poet ever become such an otherworldly epic hero of another poet's poem?"

All heroes are invented, real life has none.

I take it the Milton of Blake's invention has about as much to do with the "real" Milton as cake has to do with sawdust.

The 18th century Scottish poet James Macpherson invented an epic poet named Ossian and then wrote what was purported to be Ossian's epic work.

Nonexistence is a pretty otherworldly world, so that might qualify Macpherson.


Thanks for remembering Jack Clarke.


(Why is it Blake reminds me of Pete Seeger?!!)

Curtis Roberts said...

The two versions of the relief etching are both incredibly beautiful and, paired with the poem, moving and revelatory, each section of the post opening the others up.

TC said...


Thanks for noticing. Your great eye always honours what it falls upon.

Blake and his wife printed six sets of the Song of Los engravings, each copper plate then hand-coloured by Blake uniquely. Five of these sets survive. The Library of Congress has a good set. The British Museum set has brighter colours. The upper image here is from that set. But the most deep and rich colours, in what appears to be perhaps a culmination, is the Huntington Library set. The lower image here is from that set. You can see Blake has not only painted "wet" over the plate, but drawn on it with an engraving tool. You can feel him putting into it everything at his disposal.

John B-R said...

Joe, thank you. Vala it is. And, since I work in an academic library, I grabbed the Frye and also Ault's book on Vala ...

Tom, ok, Blake's Milton is definitely not John Milton, but nevertheless, he'sbig also not not. But methinks Blake had brass ones to make Milton such a character with such a destiny.



Thanks for reply to question of "prompts" -- yes, how interesting, the "ekphrastic element" (don't we usually think the 'illustrations' came AFTER the poems?) plus the "fluency achieved by his technique" (nice thought) which he 'invented' of course, perhaps some resonance here ---


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
ridge, red-tailed hawk calling in right
foreground, no sound of wave in channel

once thought, the perceiving
subject ceases to think

theoretical work comes about,
a synthesis, researches

grey-white of fog reflected in channel,
line of pelicans flapping toward ridge

TC said...

The Song of Los is a sort of mini-prophetic book, one of the Prophecies of the Continents, and while the best of it, Africa, is intelligible enough to anyone familiar with Blake's endless rantings against abstraction and organized religion as sources of all evil, it's still a bit hard to swallow qua poem.

The engravings for it were done in the same year Blake did his graphic work for the Songs of Experience, and the design for the Fly therein is more conventional illustration that original conception, as was the case with the Song of Los images.

It occurred to me someone might find the pairing "across texts" odd, but as nobody apparently did, perhaps the matter wasn't worth worrying over.

To follow up on Steve's thought, I think The Song of Los might be a case of Blakean ekphrasis in which the text is actually the tail of the dog.

aditya said...

A wonderful post Tom.

For a moment I could finally escape this city.

Flashes of a young boy in the background selling balloons and inflated cartoons in the middle of the highway dodging the cars and the bright din, bare footed each 6:00 pm, knocking window panes for people oblivious to a possibility of innocence in his eyes.

So much poverty. It follows me through subway cars.
Poverty to die a death within one's own family.
Poverty of the darkness across the ice. Poverty of cataract
Poverty of young men alone behind the stairway, who practice
alchemy inside bottle caps, who know
the altruism of last syringe.


Moving on, there is an old tattered man crouched on his knees eating an ice cream outside a mega-plaza claiming happiness.

Thank you for this post.

Pardon me if the comment is long/stray.

TC said...


Thank you, my friend.

Coincidentally, in Jim's last work, the novel The Petting Zoo (which will be out in November), there is a passage in which the protagonist, a successful artist picked up for having visions in the city, is briefly confined under observation in a psychiatric ward. On the hallway floor he discovers a copy of Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

"It was an annotated volume with beautiful miniature reproductions of Blake's illustrations. Billy loved Blake's poems, and Blake's paintings always left him with an abstrusely pure joy..."

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Confluences, indeed ... just posted Blake's "Auguries of Innocence" in an unrelated context (The Doors "End of the Night") and, somehow, I see the workmanlike approach, the catalogue of elements supporting the basic thesis, as the connection between Seeger and Blake. "If I had a Hammer" particularly uses this technique but beyond that there seems to be a relation to the working man in both these artists, somehow their hands are so important. With Blake the visual work feeds the written and vice versa.

I always felt that Pete, when done on stage, was ready to go help you work on the roof.

In sum, I feel your thoughts on ekphrasis may actually provide a common thread.

Curtis Roberts said...

The non-stop heat and humidity in the east really makes it difficult to think a lot of the time. Waking up ahead of the heat and reading through The Fly, the comments and the poetry here is really uplifting and refreshing. When it cools down, I'm going to be looking at a lot more Blake.

TC said...


Here's to a cool breeze for you, soon.


The feel of something made by hand has been largely lost. Blake, we remember, not only did his own engraving work but made some 500 engravings for other people.

The feeling of the hand close to the grain, whether with the grain or against it, is induplicable.

(Currently intensely aware of the significance of the hand as a right thumb tumour prevents me using that stubborn opposable digit, which I am now concluding may be more useful than the brain when it comes to getting things done. And if only Pete Seeger and William Blake were here to lend a hand with the badly needed roof and eave work...)