Wherever one turns in Blake's lyrics, the impress of popular verse tradition is inescapably clear. It shows in the most unexpected places. . . . Here it is perhaps not out of place to remark, in passing, how the metre of Blake's most vehement, impassioned lyric is the same as that of a light-hearted nursery rhyme. It is difficult to think this is an accident, moreover, when the actual visual Gestalt is so much the same:
Perhaps there is here even some conscious reversal, on Blake's part, of the mood of the earlier piece. If so, it is not (as will transpire) by any means the only case of that.
The clearest instance of how Blake drew on the traditions of our popular literature relates to “My Pretty Rose Tree” in Songs of Experience. As with “Tyger, tyger” the connexion is one of thought, not words alone; but in this case it so much creates Blake's poem as a whole, that that had better be quoted in full:
Blake has reversed the sexes, but in that poem the movement of thought, the imagery, and (one might add) the metre, are close indeed to one of our most beautiful folk-songs:
Again, one ought perhaps to insist that there is no question of imitation or borrowing merely at the verbal level. Among his other gifts, Blake had access to the popular mode of vision and expression as wholes . . . .
One must take stock of how firmly Blake's poems belong to traditions of composition that run back through the eighteenth century and indeed before it; . . .
Take a simple point first: it is the hymn which provides a perspective for one of the most immediately striking things in the lyrics, their varied use of metres, and the way in which, to a reader coming from the “literary” verse of the eighteenth century, these metres seem highly original. But at the same time, this originality is entirely different from that, say, of Herbert. Blake's `Songs' are songs. Every lyric (save “The Voice of the Ancient Bard", appended to Songs of Innocence long after the collection was completed) is stanzaic, as if it were truly to be set to a repeated melody. There is only one poem, “The Little Black Boy”, in ten-syllable lines, and none of the metres lends itself less to a lyrical than to a thoughtful or discursive tone. Cases where the sense is not complete, or substantially so, by the line-end, are extraordinarily rare. What we have is remarkable variety of a kind that goes with great simplicity and in a sense transparency of both structure and meaning. . . .
Blake in one respect departed from what was at least most usual in contemporary hymn-writing, and followed a practice common enough in the lyric throughout the whole of the eighteenth century, in that he made frequent use of triple rhythms. But for the most part he did this so that the triple rhythms combined freely with rhythms that were iambic or trochaic:
He very often has trochaic rhythms in short lyrics, and this is very like the hymns of his time (or indeed of later time). Blake drew a great deal on his own invention, in using or combining such varied metres, and in creating such a variety of stanza patterns. But the metrical and stanzaic variety of the hymns themselves was much greater than in lyric poetry in Blake's time. This came about because there were many varied, traditional, and well-loved melodies, and these gave their own shape to words written for them: hymn-writing was largely not the setting of words to music, but the writing of words for it.
Perhaps one clear way to show how much hymn metric has to do with Blake is to review the Songs of Innocence poems in order.
“Introduction” (“Piping down the valleys wild,/Piping songs of pleasant glee”), and “A Dream” (“Once a dream did weave a shade/O'er my Angel-guarded bed”), are both in the four-line seven-syllable trochaic measure of, for example, Charles Wesley's:
“The Little Girl Lost” (beginning “In futurity/I prophetic see . . . ”), and its companion piece “The Little Girl Found” are, metrically, trochaic versions of the first part of Wesley's stanza in “Rejoice, the Lord is King” or of John Byrom's “My spirit longs for thee”. “The Lamb” is printed as three stanzas, each one different, in Keynes' edition; but if stanzas 2 and 3 are combined, and the lines are indented as in stanza 1, the whole poem becomes one composed of two identical stanzas, each with ten three- or four-stress lines; and then each may easily be seen as a much expanded version of the common hymnodic “Short Metre”. Next comes “The Blossom”; and here one encounters something of a surprise. Replace an iambic by a trochaic rhythm, and the stanza of the poem is the same (save for being one line short in the second half) as the stanza-form of doubtless the best-known of all eighteenth-century hymns: “God Save the King”. (It was not, presumably, this particular example of the form which most endeared itself to Blake.)
The next poem in the collection is “The Ecchoing Green”:
But suppose that the poem is rearranged to print two lines as one:
—and so on. There is then a very clear similarity to a well-known near-contemporary hymn by Reginald Heber:
and it has really no significance that Heber's stanza is four lines long, while Blake's, if re-printed in this way, would be five.
Next come “The Divine Image", in hymnal Common Metre, and “The Chimney Sweep", an anapaestic version (rarely used in hymns) of Long Metre. “Infant Joy", the next poem, looks little, metrically speaking, like a hymn:
But in fact, this is one of the poems nearest to hymn metre, and indeed to the most usual one, Common Metre, at that. Blake has simply re-set, and in doing so of course brought out the particular rhythms of, the following Common-Metre stanza:
The next poem, “The Shepherd", is in four-line triple rhythm. “Night", which follows it, is metrically most unusual and striking among the lyrics. Here is stanza 5 of the poem:
But this is a variant of the old “Proper Metre", as in Doddridge's Hymn 100, which begins:
—and of course it is at once clear that in this particular case, substance as well as metre may be to the point. Here is stanza 5 of Doddridge's hymn:
Next comes “A Cradle Song", basically in Long Metre (with stanzas of four four-stress lines); and “The Little Boy Lost", “The Little Boy Found", and “Nurse's Song", which are all close to Common Metre, though in the last of these Blake's triple rhythms are insistent. The seven-stress lines of “Holy Thursday” (“'Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean” and so on) of course mean that each two lines of the poem make a four-line stanza in Common Metre.
After this comes “On Another's Sorrow”:
This, in both metre and rhyme, is again identical with hymns like Wesley's `Jesu, lover of my soul':
At first glance the next poem, “Spring", seems quite remote from hymnody:
But leave aside the refrain (which echoes Shakespeare's “Merrily, merrily, shall I live now,/Under the blossom that hangs on the bough”), and one eighteenth-century hymn, at any rate, is remarkably close—in more, once again, than metre only. It is by John Newton, and its first stanza is printed below in eight lines instead of the usual four:
If we append Blake's refrain to this, we could slip the whole nine lines (though I am far from claiming the result as an embellishment) into Blake's poem. . . .
“The School Boy” is in Common Metre with an extra (fifth) three stress-line at the end of the stanza; it must be admitted that the rhythms of this poem are somewhat distinctive, with many free deviations from its own basic pattern. “Laughing Song” is in Long Metre, but triple instead of double rhythm:
—and “The Little Black Boy", which begins:
is in exactly the metre of such well-known hymns as `Abide With Me' (though this particular example of the metre was composed after Blake had written his poem).
This short review of Songs of Innocence in the context of hymn-metres therefore reaches a striking conclusion. Metrically, these lyrics make as clear a parallel with eighteenth-century hymns, as they make a contrast with eighteenth-century lyric (such as it was) viewed as a whole. Nor should one think for a moment that if one admits such licenses and deviations as I have noted from time to time, or allows stanzas to be re-set as I re-set “Infant Joy” or “Spring", in order to bring out their metrical affinities, anything may then be made to look like anything. A few minutes' attempt to do for Donne's lyrics, say, or for Herbert's, what has been done here for Blake's, will suffice to show that their cases are totally different. To relate their work to hymn-metre in anything like the same way is simply out of the question.
But if the continuity between Blake's lyrics, and the hymns of his time, is to be taken any further than this, we must have regard not to the hymns in general, but now to one kind in particular: the hymn for children. Songs of Innocence is a collection of poems written, as Blake says in the introductory poem, so that “every child may joy to hear”. But while other or earlier writers use the preposition “for” (Mrs. Barbauld, Hymns in Prose for Children, 1787; Christopher Smart, Hymns for the Amusement of Children, 1775; Charles Wesley, Hymns for Children, 1763; Isaac Watts, Divine and Moral Songs for the Use of Children: the first of many editions was dated 1715) Blake's preposition is “of”. This detail has a surprising relevance, and I shall return to it. . . .
The last poem which calls for detailed attention in this context is “The Tyger”:
No one, probably, fails to sense that the penultimate verse of this poem is somehow intrinsic to its whole effect; as also, that the stars in the dark sky, and the “tyger” burning in the dark forest, are somehow one; and that those same stars, which gave up their battle and fell into grief, are one as well with the rebel angels. But what has the tiger really to do with Satan or his host? The poem may be taken back ultimately to Revelations XXII, 16, where Christ says, “I am the bright and morning star”. Since Satan was also identified with the morning star (cf. Isaiah XIV, 12), the passage has a curious ambiguity; though its link with an ambiguity, or at least a two-sidedness, central to Christianity, is doubtless accidental. Watts has one hymn which gives as reference Job XXXV, 22: “With God is terrible majesty”. “Great God how terrible thou art” it begins. Its most memorable line is
One senses, I believe, a nearness already to Blake's poem, but Watts's hymn goes on:
By now the conclusion, surprising as it is, cannot be missed. It becomes impossible not to believe that when he wrote his poem about the terrors of the tiger, Blake had in mind [Isaac] Watts's piece on the terrors of God.
In the final version of the poem, as against the drafts of it in the 1793 Notebook, Blake altered the line “Did he who made the lamb make thee?", and turned “lamb” into “Lamb”. It was no matter of mere eighteenth-century capitalization; and if it is said that this merely matches the capital for “Tyger", one has to say that that clinches the point. The tiger in the poem is no simple creation of the deity; he is the deity: if God is what the pundits have said, if he could have seen the Fall of the angels he himself made, and viewed this benignly, as he viewed each day's work of creation, then God is himself a tiger. Just as there is a question to answer, how could one God have created both the tiger and the lamb, so (the poem implies) there is a prior question: what “immortal hand or eye” could have created—or to put the question more literally, how could there be—a God who is at once a God of love, and one of terrible jealousy?—a “Tyger” and a “Lamb”? In this poem also, Blake is continuing the hymn tradition, and at the same time inverting it and challenging it. Contrary to his predecessors, he saw—or perhaps one should say supposed—that the God-of-Love-God-of-Terror formula was not a sacred mystery of religion, but a stupefying fraud.
At this point, surely, one cannot but revert to Blake's distinctive preposition: Songs of Innocence, where all his predecessors wrote songs for children; and one can see the force and newness of the closing lines of his introductory poem:
Or one may put this another way. Blake, in Songs of Innocence, was writings songs such that, in a sense, they could come spontaneously from children; the others were arranging an adult vision and an adult morality in such a form as might be imposed down upon them. . . .
There is a certain kind of lyric poetry—perhaps the most essentially lyrical in kind—which appears to require some bond with popular poetry and with the traditional literary heritage of the common people, if it is to exist. After the medieval period, there seem to have been only three English poets who have achieved greatness in this way: Shakespeare whose link as a lyric poet is with the folk-song (though here there is much more to say, of course); [William] Wordsworth whose was with the ballad in one of its kinds or another; and Blake who drew upon the wealth of the English Bible and the Protestant hymn. In Wordsworth's lyrical ballads there is sometimes a strangeness, a sense of the mysterious and uncomprehended, to which Blake's more decided mind seems to have been closed; but Blake was before Wordsworth, and his lyrical work has a fullness and variety, and also a whole-heartedness and absence of the reflective and diluted moralizing, which is not to be found in Wordsworth. He has come slowly to be seen for what he is; but it is now surely clear that it was he, more than any other poet of his period or just after, who recovered the lyric powers that had largely been lost between Traherne's time and his own. Moreover, Blake has only [Thomas] Hardy as something of a successor in English. Perhaps this is because England is now a country virtually without a rich literature of the common people such as it had in the past. Hardy aside, the only great poet of a kind comparable to Blake has been [William Butler] Yeats, whose work belongs to another country where popular culture still held the place it lost in our own.
But lyricism such as Blake's is not a technical success. It arises out of a certain sense—buoyant, joyous and yet serene—of life itself; and of course, from one point of view, the lyric product of that sense of life veritably constitutes what it embodies. It is this sense of life which I value most of all in Blake, and why I should therefore put Songs of Innocence, as a whole, above Songs of Experience. There is another point of view, though, and its strength shouts to be seen. Blake not only had that vision; he smarted under a searing awareness of how the great ones of the world rejected it or never glimpsed it. As a result, despite how the cruel time he lived in stifled his work, he is incomparably our most important poet of social and political comment. Here again, he has had (this point was adverted to earlier on) no real followers: and our literature, and our present resources for writing, are lamentably the poorer for that fact. On all these counts, Blake's value and importance are such that they warrant the highest praise. It is not easy to think of a half-dozen English poets whose work is more precious than his: or of many more than that, who are his equals.
In Golden Square, there is nothing to commemorate Blake. Of all things, the central place is occupied by a statue of George II. Nothing could have a sharper irony, or more confirm what he himself thought of the Powers That Be or what the English cultural scene has for so long been like. But on my last visit there, I found something else as well:
and so on. This was what the children sang as they played a skipping game. One of them was what Blake would have called “A Little Black Girl”. Blake's memorial was a living one, and better than the king's.