Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Blake, William (1757–1827)
Author:
Bidney, Martin
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Introspective psychological mythmaker and political as well as cosmic visionary, poet-artist William Blake wrote and illustrated verse of astonishing originality. To the Victorian writer A.C. Swinburne, Blake seemed so deeply akin to Whitman as almost to encourage belief in the transmigration of souls. Whitman saw himself and Blake as fellow mystics but thought the English poet somewhat too dizzy and wild. Yet Whitman knew little of Blake's work before Swinburne's book came out in 1868; the only ascertainable influence is the design for Whitman's tomb, which the American poet adapted from a Blake engraving.

Apparent contradictories in Whitman's writing—especially about good and evil—are often actually productive contraries in a Blakeian sense. In his manifesto The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) Blake presents a law of contraries: energy and order, desire and reason must be "married" or paired in a creative tension; similarly, body and soul are inseparable in a human being. Whitman, too, is poet of both body and soul, poet of progress through the tension of contraries, the "advance" of "opposite equals" ("Song of Myself," sections 3, 21, 48). In The Four Zoas (1797–ca. 1810) Blake sees imagination extending its range from the infinitely small to the infinitely great; imagination can encompass the universe, which becomes its metaphorical cosmic body. The cosmic body vision is at the heart of Whitman's work as well ("Song of Myself," section 31). Such imaginative expansiveness helps Blake and Whitman unite the intensity of lyric with the scope of epic.

Finally, Blake and Whitman are kindred mythmakers. In Whitman's "Chanting the Square Deific" the myth-map of four mental forces parallels Blake's scheme of "four Zoas," two pairs of mutually contrasting forces within Universal Man. On each poet's mental map, a Rebel (Luvah, Satan, or passion) faces a Reconciler (Tharmas, Hermes-Christ-Hercules, or intuitive compassion), and a Lawgiver (Urizen, Jehovah-Brahma-Kronos, or reason) confronts a Law-transcender (Urthona, Santa Spirita, or imagination). Blake's and Whitman's mental mappings are richly suggestive and psychologically acute.

Bibliography

Askin, Denise T. "Whitman's Theory of Evil: A Clue to His Use of Paradox." ESQ 28 (1982): 121–132.

Bidney, Martin. "Structures of Perception in Blake and Whitman: Creative Contraries, Cosmic Body, Fourfold Vision." ESQ 28 (1982): 36–47.

Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Rev. ed. Ed. David V. Erdman. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Pease, Donald. "Blake, Whitman, Crane: The Hand of Fire." William Blake and the Moderns. Ed. Robert J. Bertholf and Annette S. Levitt. Albany: State U of New York P, 1982. 15–38.

Swinburne, Algernon Charles. William Blake: A Critical Essay. 1868. Ed. Hugh J. Luke. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970.


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