BOOK REVIEW: William Blake ed. by J. Bronowski

William Blake: A Selection of Poems and Letters (The Penguin Poets)William Blake: A Selection of Poems and Letters by Jacob Bronowski
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a selection of poems and letters by William Blake. The poetry includes several of Blake’s collections in their entirety, including: “Songs of Innocence,” “Songs of Experience,” “The Everlasting Gospel,” “The Book of Thel,” “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” “America,” and “The Song of Los.” Additionally, it includes selections from Blake’s “Poetical Sketches 1783,” “MSS c. 1793,” “MSS c. 1803,” “MSS c. 1810,” “The Four Zoas,” “Milton,” “Jerusalem,” and “The Gates of Paradise.”

This selection gives the reader all of Blake’s most well-known and beloved works in the form of “The Songs of Innocence and Experience” and “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” The former presenting the short and lyrical poems such as: “The Lamb,” “The Little Black Boy,” “The Tyger,” and “A Little Boy Lost.” The latter best voicing Blake’s philosophy, which was spiritual but yet ran afoul of the zeitgeist by rejecting the morality of the day – particularly as regards sexuality and relationships. In truth, Blake was considered a madman by many of his contemporaries. At this point, it’s hard to know the degree to which he was truly insane versus just in conflict with the prevailing mode of thought. I’ve read that Blake’s biographies (particularly Chesterton) heavily overplays the insanity angle. It should be noted that Blake was also a painter, and his images – which are in some cases nightmare fodder – probably helped establish his lunatic status. Still, his poetry reads much less objectionably to the modern ear [possibly why Blake was one of those poets who was not well-known or well-read during his lifetime, but rather gained a major following after he was deceased.]

Most of the works that are merely sampled from are collectively called “Blake’s prophetic works” – e.g. “The Four Zoas,” “Milton,” and “Jerusalem.” These are epic poems expressing a mythology developed by Blake. For most readers, sampling these works will prove sufficient. The prophetic works involve many characters and an unfamiliar mythological base (i.e. as opposed to reading Norse or Greek mythology for which the educated reader likely has some helpful background.) In their day, the prophetic works were considered nonsensical, but more recent scholars and reviewers tend to look upon these poems in a kindlier fashion. At any rate, the select chapters aren’t enough to give the reader a flow of the story, but rather merely a taste of the language and tone of the works.

The letters number fewer than twenty, and include thank you notes and explanations of the drama going on in Blake’s life at the time. Ordinarily, I would consider the inclusion of these documents mere padding, but I’m more fascinated by Blake as a person than I am many other poets and so the letters do shed a little light on Blake as a man. Still, because one is only getting snippets of information and all from Blake’s side, the insight offered by the letters is quite limited. In my opinion, the editor should have either left the letters out or heavily footnoted them to provide background context to make sense out of them.

I’d recommend this book. I think the editor’s selection strikes the right balance in excerpting the prophetic works. I think most readers can skip the letters, unless one has a major fascination with Blake.

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