Thomas Traherne


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Thomas Traherne is one of the great religious poetic visionaries… a marvelous precursor to William Blake, but unfortunately far too little known. He lived 1637-1674… but his writings were not first discovered until the very end of the 19th century and the author was not identified nor the works published until the early 20th century. As recently as 1967 an unknown volume of his work was dramatically rescued from a burning garbage dump in London. This work, the Commentaries of Heaven was not identified as being authored by Traherne until 1982 and had not yet been edited or published at the time of the publication of the Penguin volume of Thomas Traherne: Selected Poems and Prose (unfortunately out of print… see below). To this sad history one must also add the fact that Traherne was poorly served by his literary executor… his brother… who made a shambles (mutilation?) of Traherne’s work through his attempts at editing Traherne’s work in order to make them more fit for the staid religious audience he imagined. Luckily, a good body of these works also exist in Traherne’s own original autograph.

Trahernes writings include poems and poetic prose that recalls nothing so much as Blake or the German Romantic poet Friederich von Hardenberg, known as Novalis. His poetic structures are incredibly varied and avoid traditional forms. Whether this was intentional or simply due to the fact that he was little aware of poetic traditions is unknown. In a manner also similar to Blake his poems often appear upon first reading to convey a child-like innocence or naïvety which grows in depth upon subsequent readings:

Wonder

HOW like an Angel came I down!
How bright are all things here!
When first among His works I did appear
O how their glory me did crown!
The world resembled His Eternity,
In which my soul did walk;
And every thing that I did see
Did with me talk.

The skies in their magnificence,
The lively, lovely air,
Oh how divine, how soft, how sweet, how fair!
The stars did entertain my sense,
And all the works of God, so bright and pure,
So rich and great did seem,
As if they ever must endure
In my esteem.

A native health and innocence
Within my bones did grow,
And while my God did all his Glories show,
I felt a vigour in my sense
That was all Spirit. I within did flow
With seas of life, like wine;
I nothing in the world did know
But ’twas divine.

Harsh ragged objects were concealed,
Oppressions, tears and cries,
Sins, griefs, complaints, dissensions, weeping eyes
Were hid, and only things revealed
Which heavenly Spirits and the Angels prize.
The state of Innocence
And bliss, not trades and poverties,
Did fill my sense.

The streets were paved with golden stones,
The boys and girls were mine,
Oh how did all their lovely faces shine!
The sons of men were holy ones,
In joy and beauty they appeared to me,
And every thing which here I found,
While like an Angel I did see,
Adorned the ground.

Rich diamond and pearl and gold
In every place was seen;
Rare splendours, yellow, blue, red, white and green,
Mine eyes did everywhere behold.
Great wonders clothed with glory did appear,
Amazement was my bliss,
That and my wealth was everywhere;
No joy to this!

Cursed and devised proprieties,
With envy, avarice
And fraud, those fiends that spoil even Paradise,
Flew from the splendour of mine eyes,
And so did hedges, ditches, limits, bounds,
I dreamed not aught of those,
But wandered over all men’s grounds,
And found repose.

Proprieties themselves were mine,
And hedges ornaments;
Walls, boxes, coffers, and their rich contents
Did not divide my joys, but all combine.
Clothes, ribbons, jewels, laces, I esteemed
My joys by others worn:
For me they all to wear them seemed
When I was born.
In spite of the beauty of his poetry, his prose work, Centuries of Meditations is commonly thought of as his masterwork. This visionary and poetic bit of prose reminds me not only of William Blake and the great German Romantic, Novalis, but also of the ecstatic and declaratory manner of Walt Whitman:

1. An empty book is like an infant’s soul, in which anything may be written. It is capable of all things… I have a mind to fill this with profitable wonders…

2. Do not wonder that I promise to fill it with those truths you love but know not: for tho it be a maxim in the schools, that there is no love of a thing unknown: yet I have found, that the things unknown have a secret influence on the soul…

3. I will open my mouth in parables: I will utter things that have been kept secret from the foundations of the world. Things strange, yet common; incredible, yet known; most high, yet plain; infinitely profitable, but not esteemed. Is it not a great thing that you should be heir of the world?…

4. I will not by the noise of bloody wars and the dethroning of kings advance you to glory; but by the gentle ways of peace and love… Yet shall the end be so glorious that angels durst not hope for so great a one til they had seen it.

15. …Souls are God’s jewels. Every one of which is worth many worlds… So that I alone am the end of the world. Angels and men being all mine… God gave me alone to all the world, and all the world to me alone.

Thomas Traherne- Selected Poems and Prose

http://www.amazon.com/Traherne-Selected-Poems-Penguin-Classics/dp/0140445439/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1199767363&sr=1-8

Further works by Traherne online:

http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poet/335.html


http://www.spiritofprayer.com/traherne.php

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William Blake: Artist and Poet

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William Blake (November 28, 1757 – August 12, 1827) may just be my single favorite British poet so I will need to offer fair warning as to the possibility of some bias. Blake has long been accepted as one of the “great six” of British Romanticism (Blake, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge) and one of the greatest poets ever to have written in the English language. His achievements in the visual arts have gained him near equal acclaim. Nevertheless, Blake has also been one of the most misunderstood and maligned of any major poet. He is often portrayed as a half-mad genius, a wacked-out visionary who spoke to spirits, a political naif, a curmudgeon and “outsider”, a self-taught artist and poet who had little knowledge or experience of the art of his predecessors or of his own time. Most of these stereotypes have little reality to them.

Blake may not have had the advantage of a formal education in literature at the university level… nevertheless, he was most certainly not unlearned. The reality is that Blake was very well-read and often of literature which was not part of the accepted canon of his time. Of course Blake was well-versed in the works of Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Spencer, and the Bible… but other sources of inspiration include Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, with whom he was friends and a political ally, Emanuel Swedenborg, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Plato, Plotinus, the Hermetica and the Bhagavad Gita, mythologies of the world from Egypt to Iceland to India to ancient Britain and even the Kabbalah. Not only was Blake well-read, but he was also an insightful reader who developed interpretations that freely challenged the accepted ones.

Blake developed an early love of drawing by copying engravings of masters such as Raphael, Michelangelo, and Albrecht Dürer. In this he was was fully supported by his father. Unable to afford apprenticeship to a painting master, Blake was initially apprenticed to the fashionable William Ryland, engraver to King George. Blake however would request that his father find a more suitable match for his talents, declaring that Ryland had “the hanging look about him”. (In fact Ryland would end on the scaffold some years later, convicted for forging currency.) Blake spent his apprentice years under James Basire. Basire’s manner of working was rather out-dated stressing the linear contours and avoiding the more painterly affects that would allow for replication of paintings or the creation of more atmospheric elements. His manner, however, was perfectly suited to Blake’s own personal preferences for the linear sculptural form. Basire’s chief source of income was the result of commissioned engravings to be made of architectural and sculptural details of English churches and cathedrals. Through his apprenticeship to Basire Blake was exposed to the stylistic abstractions of Romanesque and Gothic art which would have been largely dismissed by most artists of the time.

In 1778 Blake enrolled in the Royal Academy. He quickly rebelled against the preference of the academy for such painterly masters as Rubens, Rembrandt, and Titian… as well as against the president of the academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds. He detested Reynold’s pursuit of “abstractions” and “generalizations” and he would write in the margins of his personal copy of Reynold’s Discourses, “To Generalize is to be an Idiot; To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit”.

In 1782 Blake met John Flaxman (sculptor) and George Cumberland (one of the founders of the National Gallery) who would both become patrons of his work. He also met Catherine Boucher, who would become his wife. Illiterate at the time of his marriage, Blake would not only teach her to read and write, but also educate her in the art of watercolors and engraving. She would become an invaluable aid to him in the creation of his printed books and a great moral support.

In 1784 Blake and his brother, Robert opened a print shop, and began working with the radical publisher, Joseph Johnson. Through Johnson, Blake met with some of the leading intellectual dissidents of the time, including Joseph Priestly, John Henry Fuseli (whose art work clearly influenced Blake’s own), Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, William Wordsworth, and William Godwin. Inspired by Wollstonecraft’s views on marriage and sexuality Blake composed his Visions of the Daughters of Albion in 1793. It is quite possible that Percy Shelley may have come across Blake’s writings in the possession of Mary Godwin (Shelley), Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter.

In 1788 Blake developed his method of “relief etching” (reportedly revealed to him by his deceased brother Robert in a dream) by which he produced most of his printed and illustrated books. Blake often referred to his illustrated books as “illuminated books”… a term used to describe the medieval books such as the Book of Kells, the Lindesfarne Gospels

…or the Tres Riches Heures of the Limbourg Brothers, in which the text and imagery were woven into a single unified artistic entity. These books were engraved or etched in a single color and then each volume was handpainted in watercolors by himself or Catherine.

Blake also produced a large number of watercolor paintings illustrating scenes from the Bible, Milton, Dante, Shakespeare, and Chaucer. Some of these were bound with folios, while others were imagined as the basis for more ambitious printed books that he would never realize.


Pieta


Cain and Abel


The Lustful Caught in the Whirlwind- from the Inferno

Blake’s two thin volumes The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience are perhaps his most famous poetic and artistic productions… and also the first instances in which he fully integrated his visual and poetic talents.

The Songs of Innocence consist mostly of poems describing the innocence and joy of the natural world… or the world seen from an innocent viewpoint, advocating free love and a personal relationship with God unmediated by religion. The poems and the accompanying imagery are deceptively child-like. They strike one initially as simple… even naive… but reveal a deeper meaning with with repeated reading:

The Lamb

Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing whooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice.
Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee;
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a lamb.
He is meek and he is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child and thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

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!
Pretty joy!
Sweet joy, but two days old.
Sweet Joy I call thee:
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while;
Sweet joy befall thee!

In contrast, The Songs of Experience suggest a loss of innocence after exposure to the materialistic world, “unnatural” concepts such as good and evil, sin, and religion. Most of the poems of the latter volume offer a direct counterpart to the Songs of Innocence. Perhaps the best example is The Tyger, counterpart to The Lamb, and probably Blake’s most famous (deservedly) poem:

The Tyger

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

I have long held this lyric in my memory, like many nursery rhymes and poems learned in my youth. Like a nursery rhyme, it’s hypnotic and chant-like… seeming oh so simple at first… but soon revealing far greater depths of thought… questions about the very nature of good and evil and creation. I’m always struck with chills as the poet finally confronts us with the ultimate question, “Did he who made the Lamb, make thee?”, before returning once again to the beginning, “Tyger Tyger…” and leaving that question unanswered… but perhaps provoking a little spark in our minds.

Another favorite of the The Songs of Experience is The Garden of Love:

The Garden of Love

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

This poem… again deceptively simple and childlike… confronts us with what were certainly rather revolutionary ideas at the time. The poem clearly suggests the naturalness of sexuality and rages against the manner in which organized religion attempts to repress our natural desires and label them as “sinful”.

Blake was largely unknown outside of a small circle of admirers during his lifetime. His reputation began to be revived toward the end of the 19th century thanks to the admiration of poets such as W.B. Yeats and D.G Rossetti. Rossetti, an artist and poet, was greatly enamored of Blake’s attempt to merge both the visual and literary arts. In 1847, Dante Gabriel Rossetti purchased a journal of Blake’s from the brother of the artist Samuel Palmer in which one could see early compositional studies for many of Blake’s more famous art works. The text of the manuscript included copies of many of Blake’s poems from the Songs of Innocence and Experience. These exhibit numerous revisions. Perhaps more importantly, the so-called “Rossetti Manuscript” along with another original document known as the “Pickering Manuscript” contain several unpublished poems… including a number that contain some of Blake’s most well-known passages:

Auguries of Innocence

To see a 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

A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage

A Dove house fill’d with Doves and Pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions

A Dog starved at his Master’s Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State…

Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the world we safely go.

Joy & Woe are woven fine,
A Clothing for the Soul divine;
Under every grief and pine
Runs a Joy with silken twine…

Every Night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born
Every Morn and every Night,
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are Born to Endless Night.

Beyond Blake’s lyrical poetry we find some of his greatest, yet most misunderstood and underrated work. His prose piece, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

…may just be Blake’s masterpiece. This brief book is composed of a series of meditations or “fancies” as Blake titles them, in which he puts forth many of his ideas about good and evil, free will, creation and even of literature:

Note: 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.

Perhaps the most known passages of this work come from the series of aphorisms entitled, Proverbs of Hell:

A fool sees not the same tree a wise man sees.

A dead body revenges not injuries.

The nakedness of woman is the work of God.

What is now proved was once only imagin’d.

The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.

Expect poison from standing water.

You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.

Listen to the fool’s reproach! It is a kingly title!


Job, his Wife and his Accusers

Perhaps the most unique… and challenging work by Blake is his Job. This work is built of a title page and 21 engraved illustrations. At first glimpse one might assume that Blake has merely illustrated the Biblical text of Job… but as is usual with Blake, nothing is as simple as it first appears. The usual orthodox interpretation of Job is that he represents an admirable figure of faith and patience… a good man who is tested by God by having all of his worldly belongings stripped from him, his family killed, and his own body stricken with painful disease… and yet he does not lose his faith in God. Blake’s Job is something of a critique of this interpretation. Utilizing images as well as inscribed quotes from the Book of Job and other Biblical texts, Blake presents the idea that Job does not begin as a man deeply faithful to God… but rather as a figure who is faithful only in appearance. He may do the right things… but for the wrong reasons. Blake suggests that the various trials that Job undergoes amount to a spiritual journey… from a false believer to a truly spiritual man. In what in perhaps the most powerful image, Illustration XI:

Blake presents a Job condemned to the fires of Hell. Devils reach out from the hell fires below in an attempt to drag him down. Still his hands are clutched in prayer as he looks up to the Hebrew God, Jehovah, hovering over him. Jehovah points to the tablets of the law which condemn Job while the lightning bolt of damnation leap around him. And yet… as Job glances down at Jehovah’s cloven foot and at the serpent of materialism with which he is intertwined… he realizes that this immovable God of the law is one and the same with Satan. The inscription “I know that my redeemer liveth” suggests that Job has begun to imagine that there is a better God.

Blake’s epic poems, especially Milton and Jerusalem are undoubtedly his most challenging works. The staggering achievement of these works is that Blake has essentially created his own cosmology and mythology… an achievement not unlike that of Muhammad, Dante, or Homer. He essentially attempts to live up to his own declaration:

“I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s
I will not Reason & Compare; my business is to Create!

In Milton, Blake presents a fantastic narrative in which Milton is driven out of Heaven for his false representation of God as an external authoritarian being. To Blake there was no God outside of the God that resides within the human breast. Milton enters into Blake himself and begins a spiritual journey of remaking himself. Milton contains some of Blake’s most fabulous and memorable poetry:

And did those feet in ancient time
walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
on England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant Land.

(The oft-quoted phrase from this introduction to Milton, “dark and Satanic Mills” is among the first criticisms directed at the dehumanizing and polluting elements of industrialization and clearly made Blake a hero with the socially like-minded Pre-Raphaelites.)

If you account it Wisdom when you are angry to be silent, and
Not to shew it: I do not account that Wisdom but Folly.
Every Mans Wisdom is peculiar to his own Individuality
O Satan my youngest born, art thou not Prince of the Starry Hosts
And of the Wheels of Heaven, to turn the Mills day & night?…

And this is the manner of the Daughters of Albion in their beauty
Every one is threefold in Head & Heart & Reins, & every one
Has three Gates into the Three Heavens of Beulah which shine
Translucent in their Foreheads & their Bosoms & their Loins
Surrounded with fires unapproachable: but whom they please
They take up into their Heavens in intoxicating delight…

Ah weak & wide astray! Ah shut in narrow doleful form
Creeping in reptile flesh upon the bosom of the ground
The Eye of Man a little narrow orb closed up & dark
Scarcely beholding the great light conversing with the Void
The Ear, a little shell in small volutions shutting out
All melodies & comprehending only Discord and Harmony
The Tongue a little moisture fills, a little food it cloys
A little sound it utters & its cries are faintly heard
Then brings forth Moral Virtue the cruel Virgin Babylon

Can such an Eye judge of the stars? & looking thro’ its tubes
Measure the sunny rays that point their spears on Udanadan
Can such an Ear fill’d with the vapours of the yawning pit.
Judge of the pure melodious harp struck by a hand divine?
Can such closed Nostrils feel a joy? or tell of autumn fruits
When grapes & figs burst their covering to the joyful air
Can such a Tongue boast of the living waters? or take in
Ought but the Vegetable Ratio & loathe the faint delight
Can such gross Lips perceive? alas! folded within themselves
They touch not ought but pallid turn & tremble at every wind…

But in the wine presses the human grapes sing not nor dance:
They howl & writhe in shoals of torment, in fierce flames consuming,
In chains of iron & in dungeons circled with ceaseless fires,
In pits & dens & shades of death, in shapes of torment & woe –
The plates & screws & racks & saws & cords & fires & cisterns,
The cruel joys of Luvah’s daughters, lacerating with knives
And whips their victims, & the deadly sport of Luvah’s sons…

The epic poem, Jerusalem is Blake’s longest and most ambitious work. The narrative, which is confusing and does not seem to follow a linear manner, centers upon the fall of Albion, a personification of Man… Britain… or Western Culture. The work is cloaked in a dense symbolism where characters are all inventions of Blake’s own personal mythology and where any single character can represent multiple persons, concepts, or even cities. In spite of this hermetic aspect the poem, like Milton, contains many brilliant passages:

Awake! awake O sleeper of the land of shadows, wake! expand!
I am in you and you in me, mutual in love divine:
Fibres of love from man to man thro’ Albion’s pleasant land.
In all the dark Atlantic vale down from the hills of Surrey
A black water accumulates, return Albion! return!
Thy brethren call thee, and thy fathers, and thy sons,
Thy nurses and thy mothers, thy sisters and thy daughters
Weep at thy souls disease, and the Divine Vision is darken’d:
Thy Emanation that was wont to play before thy face,
Beaming forth with her daughters into the Divine bosom
Where hast thou hidden thy Emanation lovely Jerusalem
From the vision and fruition of the Holy-one?
I am not a God afar off, I am a brother and friend;
Within your bosoms I reside, and you reside in me:
Lo! we are One; forgiving all Evil; Not seeking recompense!
Ye are my members O ye sleepers of Beulah, land of shades!…

Trembling I sit day and night, my friends are astonish’d at me.
Yet they forgive my wanderings, I rest not from my great task!
To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity
Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination
O Saviour pour upon me thy Spirit of meekness & love:
Annihilate the Selfhood in me, be thou all my life!
Guide thou my hand which trembles exceedingly upon the rock of ages…

Los answer’d: Altho’ I know not this, I know far worse than this:
I know that Albion hath divided me, and that thou, O my Spectre,
Hast just cause to be irritated; but look steadfastly upon me;
Comfort thyself in my strength; the time will arrive
When all Albion’s injuries shall cease, and when we shall
Embrace him, tenfold bright, rising from his tomb in immortality.
They have divided themselves by Wrath, they must be united by
Pity; let us therefore take example & warning, O my Spectre.
O that I could abstain from wrath! O that the Lamb
Of God would look upon me and pity me in my fury!
In anguish of regeneration, in terrors of self annihilation,
Pity must join together those whom wrath has torn asunder…

Inspiration deny’d; Genius forbidden by laws of punishment:
I saw terrified; I took the sighs & tears, & bitter groans:
I lifted them into my Furnaces; to form the spiritual sword.
That lays open the hidden heart: I drew forth the pang
Of sorrow red hot: I work’d it on my resolute anvil:
I heated it in the flames of Hand, & Hyle, & Coban
Nine times; Gwendolen & Cambel & Gwineverra
Are melted into the gold, the silver, the liquid ruby,
The crysolite, the topaz, the jacinth, & every precious stone.
Loud roar my Furnaces and loud my hammer is heard:
I labour day and night, I behold the soft affections
Condense beneath my hammer into forms of cruelty
But still I labour in hope, tho’ still my tears flow down.
That he who will not defend Truth, may be compell’d to defend
A Lie:…

We are told to abstain from fleshly desires that we may lose no
time from the Work of the Lord. Every moment lost, is a moment
that cannot be redeemed every pleasure that intermingles with the
duty of our station is a folly unredeemable & is planted like the
seed of a wild flower among our wheat. All the tortures of
repentance. are tortures of self-reproach on account of our
leaving the Divine Harvest to the Enemy, the struggles of
intanglement with incoherent roots. I know of no other
Christianity and of no other Gospel than the liberty both of body
& mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination.
Imagination the real & eternal World of which this Vegetable
Universe is but a faint shadow & in which we shall live in our
Eternal or Imaginative Bodies, when these Vegetable Mortal Bodies
are no more…

England! awake! awake! awake!
Jerusalem thy Sister calls!
Why wilt thou sleep the sleep of death?
And close her from thy ancient walls.

Thy hills & valleys felt her feet,
Gently upon their bosoms move:
Thy gates beheld sweet Zions ways;
Then was a time of joy and love.

And now the time returns again:
Our souls exult & London’s towers,
Receive the Lamb of God to dwell
In England’s green & pleasant bowers.

Blake never attained the recognition he deserved during his lifetime and he forever lived in near poverty. A prophet by calling and an engraver by trade he struggled to eek out a living in a highly competitive field working in what appeared to many to be a hopelessly outmoded manner… yet in many ways Blake was as innovative as a visual artist as he was as a poet. At a time when oil painting dominated the visual arts (and had dominated for centuries) Blake had the audacity to reject such in favor of print, watercolor and his ideal of the “illuminated books”. While Western art reveled in the abilities of the artist to mimic the appearance of physical reality, Blake rejected such a goal as worthy of the artist, declaring “One power alone makes a poet, Imagination. The Divine Vision.” As such it should come as little surprise that few took Blake’s art seriously until the advent of Modernism when invention and imagination would triumph over the imitation of nature.

Beyond the books that Blake completed in an engraved manner he also produced numerous watercolor “illustrations” for other texts: the Bible:


The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins


The Last Judgment

Milton’s Paradise Lost:


The Temptation and Fall

Dante’s Divine Comedy:


The Blasphemer


Antaeus Setting Down Dante and Virgil

…chief among them. These may have been intended as studies for color engraved versions of these books. One might even suggest that Blake may have intended something along the line of what he had achieved with his Job: a merger of text and image that is a completely new invention. Blake’s art would have a direct influence upon the work of a group of followers known as “the ancients” that included Samuel Palmer…


Samuel Palmer-Early Morning-engraving

and Edward Calvert…


Edward Calvert-The Bride-engraving

His work would be a model for the design of children’s books by the end of the 19th century as well as a major source of inspiration for the development of the so-called “book arts” as found in the works of Eric Gill…


Eric Gill-The Bible

and most importantly William Morris:


William Morris/Edward Burns Jones-“Kelmscott Chaucer”

In spite of this, Blake’s art did not attain a level of recognition equal to that afforded to his poetry until after mid-century with the increased access to color reproduction allowing for his work to be experienced as close as possible to the manner in which he had intended. Since that time Blake’s work has grown greatly in popularity with artists and art lovers (as with lovers of literature)… and especially with those who follow the “book arts”. A recent collection of 19 watercolors were broken up by the owners and 12 sold for more than $7 million US. In spite of the incredibly high price for works on paper, the sale was actually far below what was expected. (A good many buyers opted out of the auction due to anger over the fact that the collection had been quickly broken up by speculators out to make a quick dollar rather than allowing the Tate or another museum time to raise the funds needed to purchase the work as a whole) The recent exhibition of Blake’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art drew crowds in numbers usually reserved for the finest painters in oils… not for an artist working in print and watercolor and often regulated to the category of “outsider artist”. It is clear that Blake’s achievements as a visual artist have attained a status that equals his achievements as a poet.

Robert Herrick

Robert Herrick (baptized August 24, 1591- October 1674)Herrick was born in London, the son of Nicholas Herrick, a well-to-do goldsmith, who committed suicide when Robert was a year old. It is thought that he attended Westminster School although there are no absolute records of this. In 1607 he apprenticed to his uncle, Sir William Herrick, who was also a goldsmith and jeweler to the king. Herrick ended his apprenticeship after only six years, at age twenty-two, at which time he entered St. John’s College, Cambridge.He graduated in 1617.
Upon graduation he began composing poetry and became active within the “Sons of Ben“, a group of Cavalier poets centered around an admiration for the works of Ben Jonson. During this time he made numerous connections at court with influential figures such as the Earl of Pembroke, Endymion Porter, Newark, Buckingham, Edward Norgate, etc… His poetry circulated at court and it (and perhaps he himself) was known by the King and Queen. He was known to be charming and witty and and would have been a welcome guest wherever music and poetry were welcome. In or before 1627, he took religious orders. At this point one would have surmised either a minor position at court… or perhaps at the Chapel in Whitehall.Unfortunately Herrick became attached as the chaplain to the ill-fated expedition to the Isle of Rhé and two years later he was appointed by the king to the position of vicar of the parish of Dean Prior, Devon in 1629.
This small position far removed from the court in London and offering no great pay… yet demanding much of the vicar led Herrick to compose Mr. Robert Hericke: his farwell unto Poetrie . However, his responsibilities did not result in the end of his career as a poet. Indeed, it was in the secluded rural environs of Devon (located in South-West England) that he wrote some of his best work.In spite of the demands of his post, he reportedly took his responsibilities as a parish priest to heart, and he was essentially a man at peace with his place and much beloved by his parishioners. Nevertheless, it has been recorded that he once was known to have thrown the manuscript of his sermon at an unfortunate parishioner who had fallen asleep during the sermon.
His poem A Thanksgiving to God for his House describes an idyllic rural life, spent in his little house surrounded by animals (including his beloved spaniel and reportedly a trained pig) and the poor but not unwelcome parishioners… but not without his pleasures of “guiltlesse mirth” and “Wassaile Bowles… Spic’d to the brink”. He was cared for by his devoted maid, Prudence Baldwin, the “Prew” of so many of his verses.
Following the English Civil War, his position was revoked on account of his refusal to make pledge to the “Solemn League and Covenant” which involved an alliance between the Protestants and the Scottish against their common enemy, the Royalists and Catholics… in return for England adopting the Scottish Presbyterian method of church government. Herrick was forced to return to London where he lived in Westminster, and depended upon the charity of friends and family. He spent this time preparing his poetry for publication. They were initially printed in 1648 under the title Hesperides; or the Works both Human and Divine of Robert Herrick. The volume contained hundreds of alternately exquisite lyrical love poems, short satires and epigrams, and religious poems. A second subsection included in the Hesperides was entitled Noble Numbers and was comprised solely of poems of sacred subjects.
Following the Restoration in 1660, with Charles II assuming the throne, Herrick petitioned for his own restoration to his previous post. Herrick was returned to his position as vicar of Dean Prior again in the summer of 1662 where he would remain until his death in 1674, at the age of 83. Herrick was a bachelor all his life, and many of the women he names in his poems are thought to be fictional… although one cannot be entirely certain as to whether some are indeed based upon real women. Herrick wrote numerous poems in which his beloved “Prew” figures, but also poems for his brothers and their wives and their children… as well as one poem in which he imagines how he himself might part from his wife… if he were to have one:
THE APPARITION OF HIS MISTRESS CALLING HIM TO ELYSIUM.
Desunt nonnulla—
COME then, and like two doves with silv’ry wings,
Let our souls fly to th’ shades where ever springs
Sit smiling in the meads ; where balm and oil,
Roses and cassia crown the untill’d soil.
Where no disease reigns, or infection comes
To blast the air, but ambergris and gums.
This, that, and ev’ry thicket doth transpire
More sweet than storax from the hallowed fire,
Where ev’ry tree a wealthy issue bears
Of fragrant apples, blushing plums, or pears;
And all the shrubs, with sparkling spangles, shew
Like morning sunshine tinselling the dew.
Here in green meadows sits eternal May,
Purfling the margents, while perpetual day
So double gilds the air, as that no night
Can ever rust th’ enamel of the light.
Here, naked younglings, handsome striplings, run
Their goals for virgins’ kisses ; which when done,
Then unto dancing forth the learned round
Commixed they meet, with endless roses crown’d.
And here we’ll sit on primrose-banks, and see
Love’s chorus led by Cupid ; and we’ll be
Two loving followers, too, unto the grove
Where poets sing the stories of our love.
There thou shalt hear divine Musæus sing
Of Hero and Leander ; then I’ll bring
Thee to the stand, where honour‘d Homer reads
His Odysseys and his high Iliads;
About whose throne the crowd of poets throng
To hear the incantation of his tongue:
To Linus, then to Pindar ; and that done,
I’ll bring thee, Herrick, to Anacreon,
Quaffing his full-crown’d bowls of burning wine,
And in his raptures speaking lines of thine,
Like to his subject ; and as his frantic
Looks shew him truly Bacchanalian-like
Besmear’d with grapes, welcome he shall thee thither,
Where both may rage, both drink and dance together.
Then stately Virgil, witty Ovid, by
Whom fair Corinna sits, and doth comply
With ivory wrists his laureat head, and steeps
His eye in dew of kisses while he sleeps ;
Then soft Catullus, sharp-fang’d Martial,
And towering Lucan, Horace, Juvenal,
And snaky Persius, these, and those, whom rage
(Dropt for the jars of heaven) fill’d t’ engage
All times unto their frenzies ; thou shalt there
Behold them in a spacious theatre.
Among which glories, crowned with sacred bays
And flatt’ring ivy, two recite their plays—
Beaumont and Fletcher, swans to whom all ears
Listen, while they, like syrens in their spheres,
Sing their Evadne ; and still more for thee
There yet remains to know than thou can’st see
By glim‘ring of a fancy. Do but come,
And there I’ll shew thee that capacious room
In which thy father Jonson now is plac’d,
As in a globe of radiant fire, and grac’d
To be in that orb crown’d, that doth include
Those prophets of the former magnitude,
And he one chief ; but hark, I hear the cock
(The bellman of the night) proclaim the clock
Of late struck one, and now I see the prime
Of day break from the pregnant east : ‘tis time
I vanish ; more I had to say,
But night determines here, away
.Transpire, breathe.
Purfling, trimming, embroidering.
Margents, bowers.
Round, rustic dance.
Rage, the poetic “furor”.
Comply, encircle.
Their Evadne, the sister of Melantius in their play”The Maid’s Tragedy”.
Herrick’s apprenticeship as a jeweler and goldsmith are especially intriguing when one considers just how jewel-like his poems are. He is a master of the miniature… rather like those Elizabethan cameos. (Its only fitting that my own personal collection of his poems is itself a miniature volume.) He’s all flowers, perfume and other sweet scents, gems, and beautiful women. His touch is exquisitely light… “precious” in the finest sense of the world:
TO THE VIRGINS, TO MAKE MUCH OF TIME.
GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying :
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may go marry:
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry.
DELIGHT IN DISORDER.
A SWEET disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness :
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction :
An erring lace which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher :
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly :
A winning wave (deserving note)
In the tempestuous petticoat :
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility :
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.
UPON JULIA’S CLOTHES.
WHENAS in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free ;
O how that glittering taketh me !
Poems such as these are just marvelous sensual delights! They remind me of the shimmer of satin and lace and a little glimpse of leg as might be found in the paintings of the French Baroque painter,
or some of the more delicate poetry of Verlaine or the chanson of Faure or Debussy. The descriptive sensuality of Herrick’s language employing allusions to sound, sight, scent, touch and even motion is absolutely exquisite. Who can ever forget “…how sweetly flows/ That liquefaction of her clothes…”? What a marvelous word.
Of course… if it is not already obvious… I have long been an admirer of Herrick’s poetry. One poem in particular, The Vine, has always made me smile… if not break into laughter:
THE VINE.
I DREAM’D this mortal part of mine
Was Metamorphoz’d to a Vine;
Which crawling one and every way,
Enthrall’d my dainty Lucia.
Me thought, her long small legs & thighs
I with my Tendrils did surprize;
Her Belly, Buttocks, and her Waste
By my soft Nerv’lits were embrac’d:
About her head I writhing hung,
And with rich clusters (hid among
The leaves) her temples I behung:
So that my Lucia seem’d to meYoung
Bacchus ravished by his tree.
My curles about her neck did craule,
And armes and hands they did enthrall:
So that she could not freely stir,
(All parts there made one prisoner.)
But when I crept with leaves to hide
Those parts, which maids keep unespy’d,
Such fleeting pleasures there I took,
That with the fancie I awook;
And found (Ah me!) this flesh of mine
More like a Stock then like a Vine.
Of course it should be mentioned that in contrast to these poems Herrick sprinkled the Hesperides with some poems of a darker nature… often taking the form of epigrams that satirize certain characteristics or weaknesses that Herrick found “ugly”. Many of these may have been inspired by his parishioners… while he is no less sparing of himself.
WRINKLES.
WRINKLES no more are or no less
Than beauty turned to sourness.
UPON HIS EYESIGHT FAILING HIM.
I BEGIN to wane in sight ;
Shortly I shall bid good-night :
Then no gazing more about,
When the tapers once are out.
For more of Herrick (actually all of Herrick):http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/herrick/herribib.htm

Yehuda Halevi or Yehuda ben Shemuel Ha-Levi

Yehuda Halevi or Yehuda ben Shemuel Ha-Levi c. 1075-1141Medieval Moorish Spain was one of the most fabulous cultures of all history. The Moorish culture in what is today Morocco dates back to the time of the Roman Empire (and perhaps earlier) when they acted as trading partners with Carthage, the independent city-state founded by the Phoenicians and competitor/enemy of Rome. Following the destruction of Carthage the surrounding provinces were integrated into the Roman Empire and later Christianized. With the fall of the Roman Empire the Byzantine Empire, the Vandals and the Arabs all struggled to gain control of the Moors. Around 600 A.D. the region was brought under Arab-Islamic control. In 711, the now Moslem Moors conquered the Visigoths taking possession of the Iberian Peninsula and pushed well into France until eventually defeated by Charles Martel at the decisive Battle of Tours (or Battle of Poitiers). The Moslem forces continued to hold control of most of what is today Spain and Portugal and many of the native population converted to Islam. Nevertheless, a number of Christian-European city-states continued to initiate conflict with the Moors and to slowly push into Spanish-Muslim territories. In 1212 a coalition under Alfonso VIII of Castille pushed the Muslims out of central Spain. Nevertheless, they would hold out in the south until 1492 when the last Moslem stronghold in Granada fell to the Christian forces. With the “reconquista” of Spain by Christian forces there began a period of forced conversion to Catholicism shortly after Isabella and Ferdinand instituted the Inquisition in 1480. Not only was the Inquisition directed at Jews and Muslims who had overtly converted to Christianity but were thought to be practicing their faiths secretly… but also it was geared toward Protestants or other “heretics” who rejected Roman Catholic orthodoxy. The persecution lead to a mass exodus leading to a population loss of about 1/3rd by 1600.From the tenth century A.D. until the final fall of Granada Moorish Spain or Arab Andalusia would represent one of the great cultures and great cultural experiments in history. In spite of the Moslem control, there was a religious tolerance so that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all flourished. Intellectual concepts and beliefs of these three religions and the artistic ideas of the east and west were interwoven in the hot house environment of Arab Andalusia. Among the great artistic achievements of the era one might point first to the marvelous art and architecture of Seville and Granada… especially as found in Alhambra, the fantastic palace complex of the Moorish rulers and once proclaimed the beautiful city in the world:

Beyond the visual arts, Arab Andalusia would inspire fabulous innovations in literature (Poem of the Cid, Solomon ibn Gabriol, Moses ibn Ezra, etc…) and music. The music of the Sephardic Jews would merge ancient Hebrew traditions with Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Greek, North African, etc. Attempts by the Jewish composer, Isaac Nathan in the early nineteenth century to revive some of this ancient music would serve as an impetus for Lord Byron’s Hebrew Melodies. The German poet, Heinrich Heine’s Hebrew Melodies were also rooted in the music of Arab Andalusia… but also the poetry of the great Spanish Hebrew poets, especially Jehuda Halevi.

Born c. 1075 in Navarre, Spain, Jehuda Halevi, Yehuda ben Shemuel Ha-Levi in full, was a Jewish poet, philosopher and doctor. Halevi’s youth is said to have been spent in seeking both pleasure and in study. He chose medicine as a career, but exhibited a great aptitude for poetry. His poetry aroused the praise and admiration of his great predecessor, Moses ibn Ezra. Halevi made a masterful use of both lyrical Arabic poetic forms and the traditions of Hebrew poetry. His early themes were common to Arabic lyric poetry: wine, women, and song.

from: That Night a Gazelle

That night a gazelle
of a girl showed me the sun
of her cheek and veil
of auburn hair

like ruby over
a moistened crystal brow
she looked like dawn’s
fire rising…

from: The Doe Washes

The doe washes her clothes
in the stream of my tears
and sets them out to dry
in the glow of her glory…

from: To Ibn Al-Mu’allim

Gently, my hard-hearted, slender one,
be gentle with me and I’ll bow before you.
I’ve ravished you only in looking-
my heart is pure, but not my eyes:
They’d gather from your features
the roses and lillies mingled there.
I’d lift the fire from your cheeks
to put out fire with fire…

-translated by Peter Cole, 2007

from Parted Lovers

…If parting be decreed for the two of us,
stand yet a little, while I gaze upon thy face…

By the life of Love, remember the days of thy longing as I-
I remember the nights of thy delight.

As thine image passeth into my dream,
So let me pass, I entreat thee, into thy delight.
Between me and thee roar the waves of a sea of tears
And I cannot pass over unto thee…

Would that after my death, unto mine ears should come
The sound of the golden bells upon thy skirts.

-translated by Nina Salaman, 1923

Of course Hafiz was more than aware of the Greco-Latin traditions of love poetry as well:

from: Epithalamium

The stars of the earth are joined today-
a pair unrivalled in the hosts of heaven.
Even the Pleiades envy this union,
for breath itself can’t come between them…

-translated by Peter Cole, 2007

His style, which was both personal and fluid… but also containing the mythic-visionary manner of the Hebrew Bible is all the more astonishing when one considers that Hebrew was NOT his native language. In spite of this, Halevi has the reputation as the greatest post-Biblical Hebrew poet.

Halevi described himself as the “immigrant from Christendom” due to his continual wandering. He had initially lived in southern Islamic Spain (some say Toledo). With time, he became disillusioned with the pleasure-seeking/ beauty-worshiping lifestyle of the Andalusian cultural ideal, declaring: “Don’t be taken by Greek wisdom/ which bears no fruit, but only blossoms.” This change of heart may have been in part due to a growing spiritual maturity, but it was also a response to the increasing intolerance toward Judaism which he was to witness following the assumption of control of Andalusia by the North African Almoravids. He moved initially to Seville or Cordoba and then eventually followed many other Jewish-Andalusian refugees to Castille, ruled by the tolerant King Alfonso VI. When King Alfonso died, however, anti-Jewish rioting broke out. Halevi seems to have continued to wander for some time, often witnessing the devastation of Jewish communities wrought by Christian and Muslim forces alike. At this time Halevi’s poetry began to turn to serious spiritual/religious content and build even more so upon the Hebrew Biblical traditions:

from Heal Me Lord

Heal me Lord and I will be healed.
Don’t let me perish in your anger.
All my balms and potions are yours
to guide to weakness or to vigor…

from True Life

I run to the source of the one true life,
turning my back on all that is empty or vain.
My only hope is to see the Lord, my king-
apart from Him I fear and worship nothing…

from Where Will I Find You

Where, Lord, will I find you:
your place is high and obscured
And where
won’t I find you:
your glory fills the world…

-translated by Peter Cole, 2007

In spite of Halevi’s rejection of easy pleasures of wine, women, and song and his rejection of the Arab-Andalusian culture he once embraced, his poetry still made masterful use of the forms of the Arabic lyrical poem traditions… often in combination with Hebrew traditions… in this case conjoining it with the tradition of the Biblical Psalms:

from Sabbath Hymn

On Friday doth my cup o’erflow,
What blissful rest the night shall know,
When, in thine arms, my toil and woe
Are all forgot, Sabbath my love!

‘Tis dusk, with sudden light, distilled
From one sweet face, the world is filled;
The tumult of my heart is stilled-
For thou art come, Sabbath my love!…

translated by Hartwig Hirschfeld, 1905

At this time Helevi also became noted as a philosopher, composer various treatises upon Judaism. Perhaps the most well-known of these is The Kuzari, In Defense of the Despised Faith which presented Hebrew beliefs in clear-cut manner and argued against Greek philosophy, Islam, and Christianity. Eventually believing that he could only find peace of mind in the Holy Land Halevi bid farewell to friends and family shortly after the death of his wife and sailed for Alexandria, Egypt. He was greatly welcomed there. There were many admirers there and Egypt provided a large and safe Jewish community, free from intolerance or oppression. Nevertheless, Halevi was set upon returning to the Holy Land. He was advised against due to ill health, but continued to push on. It is thought that he passed through Cairo, Tyre, Damascus, and eventually arrived at Jerusalem. Tradition has it that he was slain by an Arab horseman while he was singing his great Song to Zion before the remaining western wall of the great Temple of Solomon (now known as the “Wailing Wall”).

from Song to Zion

Won’t you ask, Zion,
how your captives are faring-
this last remnant of your flock who seek
your peace with all their being?
From west and east, from north and south-
from those near and far,
from all corners- accept these greetings,
and from desire’s captive, this blessing…

-translated by Peter Cole, 2007

More by Halevi: http://www.angelfire.com/ct/halevi/