No, the seagulls do not represent kamikaze airplanes: Review of Chesterton’s “William Blake”

I believe I encountered William Blake for the first time in a high school honor’s English class. But the name really meant nothing to me, other than that he was one of the Greats next to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and Lord Tennyson. They were all just poets who had achieved greatness sometime in the past between the 17th and 20th centuries. And here I was in a high school English class presuming I could “analyze” their poetical works. Sounds pretty presumptuous. It reminds me of the time my English teacher pulled out one memorable student analysis of a poem which asserted “the seagulls are a symbol for Japanese kamikaze airplanes.”

Ever since then, I have wanted to do these poets justice, and really attempt to get at what they meant. In high school, I aspired to be a poet, but ended giving up to pursue what I deemed a more “rational” career in chemical engineering where a spade is a spade and nothing else. But I kept my poetical side alive, eventually purchasing every “The Collected Work of __________” I could when I worked as a bookseller at Barnes and Noble. William Blake was one of those. I rarely even opened Blake though, because he seemed so, well, unintelligible. Can you make head nor tail of this?

Enslav’d, the Daughter of Albion weep: a trembling lamentation
Upon their mountains; in their valleys. sighs toward America.

For the soft soul of America, Oothoon, wanderd in woe,
Along the vales of Leutha seeking flowers to comfort her;
And thus she spoke to the bright Marygold of Leuth’s vale
Art thou a flower! art thou a nymph! I see thee now a flower;
Now a nymph! I dare not pluck thee from thy dewy bed!

The Golden nymph replied; pluck thou my flower Oothoon the mild
Another flower shall spring, because the soul of sweet delight
Can never pass away. she ceas’d & closd her golden shrine

Perhaps if I had an introduction, to understand what Blake was getting at, then I could understand what some of his poems meant? Other than that, it just seemed like alphabet soup (I have actually read a biography of William Blake previously here, but it did little to alleviate the confusion).

My second encounter with Blake was, curiously, on my mission to Frankfurt, Germany. I was serving in the beautiful city of Bonn. We would meet a man in the Hofgarten in front of the Poppelsdorf Palace to teach him the discussions. As a student, he happened to be doing his thesis on William Blake. He was quite the literary fellow. When we read the Book of Mormon, he would insist on reading it out loud to us a chapter at a time, as he was a trained Vorleser (read-a-louder). And we would have philosophical discussions regarding the implications of doctrines in the Book of Mormon. I felt a little bit in over my head, but I tried to stick to the missionary goal of teaching the gospel in its simplicity.

Castle Poppelsdorf - Poppelsdorf Palace

Now, moving on to G. K. Chesterton’s biographical take on Blake. Chesterton would likely horrify a historian in his approach to biographies, but that’s partly what makes them so profound. Rather than sticking to the details of where he was born, what his parents were like, and all that other David Copperfield kind of crap, he seeks to find the significance of Blake– more of an interpretation of his life. He did the same with George Bernard Shaw, St. Francis of Assisi, and Thomas Aquinas, all of which I have also read. Chesterton does the audience a favor by explaining his approach:

Blake was born in 1757, in Carnaby Market—but Blake’s life of Blake would not have begun like that. It would have begun with a great deal about the giant Albion, about the many disagreements between the spirit and the spectre of that gentleman, about the golden pillars that covered the earth at its beginning and the lions that walked in their golden innocence before God. It would have been full of symbolic wild beasts and naked women, of monstrous clouds and colossal temples; and it would all have been highly incomprehensible, but none of it would have been irrelevant. All the biggest events of Blake’s life would have happened before he was born. But, on consideration, I think it will be better to tell the tale of Blake’s life first and go back to his century afterwards. It is not, indeed, easy to resist temptation here, for there was much to be said about Blake before he existed. But I will resist the temptation and begin with the facts.

By the time you get to the end of the biography, you aren’t so sure he stuck to the facts of Blake’s life! Instead you get fascinating insights into the weaknesses of specialists and experts:

People say that specialists are inhuman; but that is unjust. People say an expert is not a man; but that is unkind and untrue. The real difficulty about the specialist or expert is much more singular and fascinating. The trouble with the expert is never that he is not a man; it is always that wherever he is not an expert he is too much of an ordinary man. Wherever he is not exceptionally learned he is quite casually ignorant. This is the great fallacy in the case of what is called the impartiality of men of science. If scientific men had no idea beyond their scientific work it might be all very well—that is to say, all very well for everybody except them. But the truth is that, beyond their scientific ideas, they have not the absence of ideas but the presence of the most vulgar and sentimental ideas that happen to be common to their social clique. If a biologist had no views on art and morals it might be all very well. The truth is that a biologist has all the wrong views of art and morals that happen to be going about in the smart set in his time. If Professor Tyndall had held no views about politics, he could have done no harm with his views about evolution. Unfortunately, however, he held a very low order of political ideas from his sectarian and Orange ancestry; and those ideas have poisoned evolution to this day. In short, the danger of the mere technical artist or expert is that of becoming a snob or average silly man in all things not affecting his peculiar topic of study; wherever he is not an extraordinary man he is a particularly stupid ordinary man.

The difference between real religion and spiritualism using an alcoholic metaphor:

The difference between having a real religion and having a mere curiosity about psychic marvels is really very like the difference between drinking beer and drinking brandy, between drinking wine and drinking gin. Beer is a food as well as a stimulant; so a positive religion is a comfort as well as an adventure. A man drinks his wine because it is his favourite wine, the pleasure of his palate or the vintage of his valley. A man drinks alcohol merely because it is alcoholic.

And a critique of impressionism:

Impressionism is scepticism. It means believing one’s immediate impressions at the expense of one’s more permanent and positive generalisations. It puts what one notices above what one knows. It means the monstrous heresy that seeing is believing. A white cow at one particular instant of the evening light may be gold on one side and violet on the other. The whole point of Impressionism is to say that she really is a gold and violet cow. The whole point of Impressionism is to say that there is no white cow at all. What can we tell, it cries, beyond what we can see? But the essence of Mysticism is to insist that there is a white cow, however veiled with shadow or painted with sunset gold. Blessed are they who have seen the violet cow and who yet believe in the white one. To the mystic a white cow has a sort of solid whiteness, as if the cow were made out of frozen milk. To him a white horse has a solid whiteness as if he were cut out of the firm English chalk, like the White Horse in the valley of King Alfred. The cow’s whiteness is more important than anything except her cowishness.

You get enough of Blake in between to get a general sweep of his life, but I am glad that I had read a biography previously that was more biographical in nature. But you enjoy Chesterton for his asides, his paradoxes, his analogies, and most of all his wit. In the end, you find that while Chesterton disagreed with Blake on many accounts, he found that he stood for something: the solidity of ideas.

Image credit to a creative Redditer and ThousandWonders

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