Week 389: The Echoing Green, by William Blake

This seemingly naïve pastoral is not perhaps in the visionary vein one usually associates with Blake, yet I feel it has acquired a peculiar poignancy in these days of social isolation – certainly my own local Echoing Green is eerily deserted these days – no sport, no teenagers in convivial huddles on the benches, even a lock on the children’s playground in the corner.

I wonder, incidentally, what a village green would have looked like in Blake’s time. Probably rather different from our own mowed and manicured areas with their cricket squares, football pitches, swings and climbing frames. Was football even played on a pitch then? – I have an idea that it was more a mob-handed affair ranging over open fields between two sides intent on doing as much damage to each other as possible and never mind the ball (OK, not much change there then). Certainly I know my own local green is all that remains of a great wild common, a favourite haunt of early botanists, stretching right up to the edge of the woods over acres long gone under housing estates.

The Echoing Green

The Sun does arise,
And make happy the skies;
The merry bells ring
To welcome the Spring;
The skylark and thrush,
The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around
To the bells’ cheerful sound,
While our sports shall be seen
On the Echoing Green.

Old John, with white hair,
Does laugh away care,
Sitting under the oak,
Among the old folk.
They laugh at our play,
And soon they all say:
‘Such, such were the joys
When we all, girls and boys,
In our youth time were seen
On the Echoing Green.’

Till the little ones, weary,
No more can be merry;
The sun does descend,
And our sports have an end.
Round the laps of their mothers
Many sisters and brothers,
Like birds in their nest,
Are ready for rest,
And sport no more seen
On the darkening Green.

William Blake

Week 265: The Garden of Love, by William Blake

It has to be admitted that when it comes to matters of sexual liberation, anyone going to the poets for moral guidance is likely to end up more than a little confused. Who do you listen to? Dante taking a stern view of the goings on between Paolo and Francesca: ‘quanti dolci pensier, quanto disier/menò costoro al doloroso passo?’  Shakespeare being fed up with the whole business of sex: ‘All this the world well knows; yet none knows well/To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell’? Philip Larkin warning against ‘fulfilment’s desolate attic’? Or alternatively, the splendidly rambunctious Rabbie Burns telling the Establishment of his day to get stuffed: ‘The Kirk an’ State may join, and tell/To do sic things I mauna:/The Kirk an’ State may gae to hell/And I’ll gae to my Anna’? Or, as in this poem from ‘Songs of Innocence’, the equally free-spirited William Blake expressing much the same sentiment in a rather more figurative but no less incisive way? I think one has to be careful about taking Blake as a guide to life, since his dicta do lend themselves to misinterpretation, and many have found, for example, that the road of excess leads not to the palace of wisdom but simply to more excess. But I do like this poem, as, I suspect, does the author of that chaotic but wonderfully vivid modern trilogy ‘His Dark Materials’, Philip Pullman, who surely must count Blake as one of his inspirations.

The Garden of Love

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I had never 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 turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore,

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

William Blake

Week 192: The Sick Rose, by William Blake

I find this one of Blake’s most haunting poems but also one of the most troublesome, because despite my own best efforts and the efforts of others I don’t feel that I am any closer to understanding it beyond what seems the fairly safe bet that it is about human sexuality rather than horticulture.

So just stop worrying? The trouble is that once you abandon the quest for meaning, can you be sure of being able to distinguish truly inspired utterance from manufactured gibberish? Well, I don’t think this poem is gibberish, but why not? After all, invisible flying worms seem to fall some way short of sense as we know it.

So, if I can’t figure out what was going in Blake’s head when he wrote it, can I at least figure out what is going in mine when I read it? Not really – I only know that it passes Housman’s test for poetry: that it makes the hairs stand on end.

The Sick Rose

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

William Blake