29 January, 2010

Blake's "Innocence and Experience"

William Blake is one of the craziest, weirdest, hardest to make sense of blokes I've read in a very long time. Possibly ever. This is largely because his world-view as a whole is so strikingly foreign to that which the vast majority of people hold (and the fact that I, coming from UD in the midst of this age of hodge-podge ideas, even speak of "one" world-view for the "majority" of people is an indication of just how foreign he is). He was a gnostic. He thought Christ a force of "poetic genius". He wanted Imagination to replace reason (rightfully so, by some interpretations, but it's still odd). He wrote "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell", which articulates itself in the "Voice of the Devil", proclaims contraries necessary for progression and claims that good is evil, evil good (again, all of this is more shocking on a first read than it is once you understand his satire).

Trying to sort out what he means by "Innocence" and "Experience" in the context of the songs titled with those terms is much harder than the superficial simplcity of the poems in these collections would suggest, though the weirdness I've outlined above gives some reason to expect that such might be the case. The two Introduction poems do seem to hint at a resolution. Here are the poems and then a few (admittedly disjointed) thoughts about what we can draw from the two.

Introduction to "Songs of Innocence"

Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:

"Pipe a song about a Lamb!"
So I piped with merry cheer.
"Piper, pipe that song again;"
So I piped: he wept to hear.

"Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe;
Sing thy songs of happy cheer!"
So I sung the same again,
While he wept with joy to hear.

"Piper, sit thee down and write
In a book, that all may read."
So he vanished from my sight,
And I plucked a hollow reed,

And I made a rural pen,
And I stained the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear.

Introduction to "Songs of Experience"

Hear the voice of the Bard,
Who present, past, and future, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk'd among the ancient trees;

Calling the lapsèd soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!

'O Earth, O Earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass!
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumbrous mass.

'Turn away no more;
Why wilt thou turn away?
The starry floor,
The watery shore,
Is given thee till the break of day.'

So, if Imagination is a concept through which Blake is attempting to effect a reintegration of the human faculties of thinking and feeling (and Imagination seems to be the actualization of the poetic genius, which is the capacity of realizing man's spiritual potential), could the divide we encounter between the two books be something of Blake's recognition of the persistence of a certain tension between thinking and feeling even when they are both given their proper due as integral powers of human Imagination? Not that feeling belongs exclusively to Innocence or thinking to Experience, but each state of the soul may, it seems, be in some sense seen as leaning towards one aspect of the human capacity for Imagination. In the Songs of Innocence, that might be one reason for the heightened musicality, clearly-seen "narrative" (that term used very loosely), the very pictoral encounters with nature, the explicit description of the poetic voice as that of the "Piper". And in the Songs of Experience, the emphasis on thinking may be seen in the omnipresence of human buildings/attempts to order the world, the increased willingness to think deeply about the ramifications of actions, the awareness that initial impressions of goodness and beauty may be superficial, and the identification of the poetic voice as that of the Bard (whose words are more important than the music with which he accompanies them).

In all this also, there is a possibility of understanding Blake's comment in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" about the necessity of contraries for progression. Each state of the soul cannot be present in the same person at the same time, but neither one can be accepted as the only positive state of the soul: you need to accept that both get at a part of the truth and that the tension between the two is necessary for any progress towards a greater spiritual understanding.

20 January, 2010

Responsibility in Mansfield Park

As I was reading the first few chapters of Mansfield Park (for Literary Tradition IV), I was particularly struck by the proclivity of various characters to claim all the benefits of a position of responsibility while foisting off the challenges of such a position onto others. Mrs. Norris is, from the first pages on, the clearest example of such a character, as we see in her manipulate the Bertrams into taking on Fanny Price as a ward: a gesture that (at least in her own mind) allows her to appear the generous and forgiving sister while avoiding all the inconveniences that would accompany such a gesture. “Good heaven!” she cries, upon hearing of Sir Thomas’ proposition that she take on the older Fanny about five years later, “what could I do with Fanny? – Me! A poor helpless forlorn widow, unfit for any thing, my spirits quite broke down, what could I do with a girl at her time of life, a girl of fifteen!” ( MP, 63). Yet this same “forlorn widow” is quite capable of “promoting gaieties for her nieces, assisting their toilettes, displaying their accomplishments, and looking for their future husbands” (MP, 68). She is ready to jump at the least excuse to avoid the arduous task of looking after an undesirable niece from the poor side of the family while claiming all the merit of having procured Fanny’s welfare, and the responsibilities she does take on seem accepted only because of the “means [they] afforded her of mixing in society without having horses to hire” (MP, 69). While Mrs. Norris’ hypocrisy and essential indolence (as pronounced as Lady Bertram’s, though camouflaged beneath a veneer of frantic activity) are clear-cut, Austen does not commit the problem of how one must accept responsibility to Mrs. Norris alone. Lady Bertram’s laziness obviously unfits her for the role of a responsible guardian, but Sir Thomas’ case is more complex. He clearly wants to be a good father to his children and guardian to Fanny, yet fails on many counts to provide for their welfare. Austen repeatedly emphasizes his lack of emotional connection with his children and with Fanny, describing him as a man of the best interior disposition, sensitive to the potential trauma of Fanny’s removal from her childhood home and determined to treat her kindly, but unable to form his charges’ characters due to his “reserve of manner” (MP, 55). As the novel progresses, Austen’s attention begins to turn from the question of the responsibilities of educators to their charges towards the question of how one is socially responsible in the adult world. The most responsible thing Mr. Rushworth can do with his great wealth and estate is to spend as much as possible to restore the estate to a level of grandeur appropriate to his social status—or so Mrs. Norris believes (MP, 85). Mary Crawford speaks with great levity about the responsibility of getting married at some point, and eventually being constrained by attention to public opinion to be “staunch” in defense of marriage (MP, 76, 79). But consistently thus far, the only two characters who seem to take their responsibilities towards others seriously, rather than merely putting on a socially acceptable show of assuming them, are Fanny and Edmund. Edmund is the single member of the family to genuinely care for Fanny, not merely as a figure to be given an education in French and then tolerated as a companion for Lady Bertram, but as a human person, with cares, interests and sorrows of her own that need attending. His education seems to encourage Fanny in her original gentle and caring disposition, and its effects are evident when Fanny is the only member of the Bertram household besides Edmund himself who has enough loyalty to her guardian to grieve when he leaves for the West Indies. Given this early relationship between Fanny and Edmund, it will be interesting to watch more closely the progress of Fanny’s turn to being a guardian of sorts for her older cousin as he becomes increasingly ensnared in the charms of Mary Crawford, a charming woman, with much of the good intentions that so many of the novels inefficacious and otherwise unpraiseworthy characters seem to share, but hardly a “moral” match for Edmund Bertram.