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April 12, 2007


I'm a fan of Blake, but I have to admit I don't understand this poem. Anyone care to 'explain' it?

I mean, it seems anti-'materialism' somehow, but that's as far as I can get.

Whatever it means, it doesn't look too good for the conclusions of Enlightenment thinker/mockers.

Science seems to squeak through, though in its place.

Well, I am Not a Blake Scholar, and I haven't gone to look up the context for this poem - but you could argue he isn't exactly disagreeing with the Enlightenment thinkers, he's suggesting that their efforts are pointless, because humans are innately not rational. Because the "tents shine so bright."

But I could very easily be all wet. Last time I paid much attention to Blake was a few years back when there was an exhibit of his drawings at the Metropolitan Museum. Cool stuff.

hilzoy knows her Blake well; perhaps she can help us out here before we dig ourselves deeper (well, before I dig myself deeper, anyhow).

I don't understand it either.

It is a response to the "doubters" that despite their philosophical discussions about the nature or existence or importance of god, god is there nonetheless. All the deepest material explanations of existence are just dust, and the kingdom of god is beyond glorious by comparison. Just my take on Blake. Think Tyger, tyger.

Clearly, Hilzoy hates science, and is ruining the site.

"I have to admit I don't understand this poem."

To be unhelpful, if you're trying to understand a poem you've likely got the wrong goal.

But ok, the whole poem comes out of "You throw the sand against the wind" (since "You spit into the wind" makes the reader think "You step on Superman's cape" and that clashes with the religion) - worthless sand grains are turned by God's light into gems, and they make up (as reductive atoms and particles) an insignificant part of the greatness of religious truths. The poem doesn't really have an argument as such, just attitude to burn.

One of the greatest poems I know, by Elizabeth Bishop, maybe just a touch in response to the above:


The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

--Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn't tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

To be unhelpful, if you're trying to understand a poem you've likely got the wrong goal.

(a) Only on a certain understanding of "understand," which I agree is not the right target; but

(b) understanding in the "wrong" sense can be a useful first step to understanding in the "good" sense.

If that makes any sense.

If that makes any sense.

Together, you and Rilkefan have actually put it quite nicely.

I might prefer saying "I'm having trouble following [or even "reading"] the poem", or "I think I'm missing some background information about stuff the apparently poem refers to".

Just a couple of quotes which may throw some oblique light on "Mock On..". My big book of Blake has those lines in his Notebook Poems, c 1800-1806, in a section which seem to be rough drafts and outtakes from The Grey Monk. Immediately before hilzoy's selection come these words:

Each Man is in His Spectres power
Untill the arrival of that hour
When his Humanity awake
And Cast his own Spectre into the Lake

And there to Eternity apire
The selfhood in a flame of fire
Till then the Lamb of God

Later in Jerusalem he revisits the 'Spectre':

The Spectre is the Reasoning Power in Man; & when separated
From Imagination, and closing itself as in steel, in a Ratio
Of the Things of Memory, It thence frames Law s & Moralities
To destroy Imagination! the Divine Body, by Martyrdom and Wars

Reason is mortal and imagination/God Eternal seems a good way to read it.

I confess to little contextual knowledge of Blake, because I've read more by him than about him, but this has definitely whetted my appetite.

I'm with rilkefan on the "attitude" angle. Blake certainly had plenty.

"the apparently poem"


I-90 near Herkimer

the car on the cozy mountainside
is slowly faster than mine

in the thumping four-lane valley
glaring between thoughts at him
i am foot-heavy
that he'll be finished
with the hours of ugly low hills



I like the Bishop poem. I have a photograph of a sandpiper on the beach. But as for Blake, I will say:

"I'm having trouble following [or even "reading"] the poem", or "I think I'm missing some background information about stuff the apparently poem refers to".

as i read it, Blake's saying that no matter what great Men do, discover or accomplish, it is all mere sand and dust in significance, compared to God's creation. but, nonetheless, even the smallest sand and dust appear as gems, in God's light.

I've always thought that the "mocking" and it being blown back into the mockers eye is a eternal component of truth. Truth ridiculed, only shines the brighter.

For you guitar playing/folksinging/Dylan fans out there, try this famous Blake poem (London) with the chords and sung to the tune of Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." I had the privilege of studying Blake's poetry with Allen Ginsberg in Boulder, CO in the late 1970s (at the Naropa Institue - Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics!) and he told me about his having introduced Dylan to Blake's work shortly after Bob's famous bike wreck. "I Shall Be Released" followed not long after.

Just a bit o' Blake trivia.

PS: Ginsberg was brilliant.


I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:

How the chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage-hearse.

" the Naropa Institue"

Which is just down the block from me.

Bernard, again, I suggest following the use of sand through the poem. Maybe guess that God is the wind (via spirit), or the light turning the sand to gems, or the reason for Israel's tents. Voltaire, Rousseau, Democritus, and Newton you know are representatives of reason and the natural world as all - representatives of the belief that the visible and rational appearances are true. Blake thinks there's stuff going on behind what we can see, stuff that can't be reduced to little pieces and analyzed. The poem expresses this belief in an organic, compact, and striking way. Maybe there's other stuff going on (why paths or tents?) but there's enough there for the common reader to be satisfied with.

The Bishop poem above is maybe a bit harder - it helps to realize the poem is about Bishop herself to some extent (principally her attention to details, perhaps wryly expressed as a lack of awareness of the larger picture, but also her lifelong restlessness and love of coasts).

Canción del jinete

Lejana y sola.

Jaca negra, luna grande,
y aceitunas en mi alforja.
Aunque sepa los caminos,
yo nunca llegaré a Córdoba.

Por el llano, por el viento,
jaca negra, luna roja.
La muerte me está mirando
desde las torres de Córdoba.

¡Ay que camino tan largo!
¡Ay mi jaca valerosa!
¡Ay que la muerte me espera,
antes de llegar a Córdoba!

Lejana y sola.

- Federico García Lorca

the Lorca settles it for me. [though i know no spanish]
i might have another gloss-type comment tomorrow [fighting the beer now]
g'night, all

oof. sorry, ObWi community. that is what happens when you do your taxes, and then go out to forget you did your taxes, and then return to the temptation of an open laptop.

I keep hoping for some ee cummings but I guess if would want something done right yadda yadda happy Friday everyone!

i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh . . . . And eyes big love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill

of under me you so quite new

-- ee cummings

"anyone lived in a pretty how town", "she being brand new", and the one Fledermaus just posted are my three fav e.e. poems - and probably my favorites of anyone, all-time.

in hindsight, every poem i've ever written feels to me like a rip-off of those three poems.

all ignorance toboggans into know

all ignorance toboggans into know
and trudges up to ignorance again:
but winter's not forever, even snow
melts;and if spring should spoil the game,what then?

all history's a winter sport or three:
but were it five,i'd still insist that all
history is too small for even me;
for me and you,exceedingly too small.

Swoop (shrill collective myth) into thy grave
merely to toil the scale to shrillerness
per every madge and mabel dick and dave
tomorrow is our permanent address

and there they'll scarcely find us (if they do
we'll move away still further:into now

e. e. cummings


If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven:
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Death of the Hired Man

Mary sat musing on the lamp-flame at the table
Waiting for Warren. When she heard his step,
She ran on tip-toe down the darkened passage
To meet him in the doorway with the news
And put him on his guard. "Silas is back."

She pushed him outward with her through the door
And shut it after her. "Be kind," she said.
She took the market things from Warren's arms
And set them on the porch, then drew him down
To sit beside her on the wooden steps.

"When was I ever anything but kind to him?
But I'll not have the fellow back," he said.
"I told him so last haying, didn't I?
'If he left then,' I said, 'that ended it.'
What good is he? Who else will harbour him
At his age for the little he can do?
What help he is there's no depending on.

Off he goes always when I need him most.
'He thinks he ought to earn a little pay,
Enough at least to buy tobacco with,
So he won't have to beg and be beholden.'
'All right,' I say, 'I can't afford to pay
Any fixed wages, though I wish I could.'
'Someone else can.' 'Then someone else will have to.'
I shouldn't mind his bettering himself
If that was what it was. You can be certain,
When he begins like that, there's someone at him
Trying to coax him off with pocket-money, --
In haying time, when any help is scarce.
In winter he comes back to us. I'm done."

"Sh! not so loud: he'll hear you," Mary said.

"I want him to: he'll have to soon or late."

"He's worn out. He's asleep beside the stove.
When I came up from Rowe's I found him here,
Huddled against the barn-door fast asleep,
A miserable sight, and frightening, too --
You needn't smile -- I didn't recognise him --
I wasn't looking for him -- and he's changed.
Wait till you see."

"Where did you say he'd been?"

"He didn't say. I dragged him to the house,
And gave him tea and tried to make him smoke.
I tried to make him talk about his travels.
Nothing would do: he just kept nodding off."

"What did he say? Did he say anything?"

"But little."

"Anything? Mary, confess
He said he'd come to ditch the meadow for me."


"But did he? I just want to know."

"Of course he did. What would you have him say?
Surely you wouldn't grudge the poor old man
Some humble way to save his self-respect.
He added, if you really care to know,
He meant to clear the upper pasture, too.

That sounds like something you have heard before?
Warren, I wish you could have heard the way
He jumbled everything. I stopped to look
Two or three times -- he made me feel so queer --
To see if he was talking in his sleep.
He ran on Harold Wilson -- you remember --
The boy you had in haying four years since.
He's finished school, and teaching in his college.

Silas declares you'll have to get him back.
He says they two will make a team for work:
Between them they will lay this farm as smooth!
The way he mixed that in with other things.
He thinks young Wilson a likely lad, though daft
On education -- you know how they fought
All through July under the blazing sun,
Silas up on the cart to build the load,
Harold along beside to pitch it on."

"Yes, I took care to keep well out of earshot."

"Well, those days trouble Silas like a dream.
You wouldn't think they would. How some things linger!
Harold's young college boy's assurance piqued him.
After so many years he still keeps finding
Good arguments he sees he might have used.
I sympathise. I know just how it feels
To think of the right thing to say too late.
Harold's associated in his mind with Latin.

He asked me what I thought of Harold's saying
He studied Latin like the violin
Because he liked it -- that an argument!
He said he couldn't make the boy believe
He could find water with a hazel prong --
Which showed how much good school had ever done him.
He wanted to go over that. But most of all
He thinks if he could have another chance
To teach him how to build a load of hay ---- "

"I know, that's Silas' one accomplishment.
He bundles every forkful in its place,
And tags and numbers it for future reference,
So he can find and easily dislodge it
In the unloading. Silas does that well.
He takes it out in bunches like big birds' nests.
You never see him standing on the hay
He's trying to lift, straining to lift himself."

"He thinks if he could teach him that, he'd be
Some good perhaps to someone in the world.
He hates to see a boy the fool of books.
Poor Silas, so concerned for other folk,
And nothing to look backward to with pride,
And nothing to look forward to with hope,
So now and never any different."

Part of a moon was falling down the west,
Dragging the whole sky with it to the hills.
Its light poured softly in her lap. She saw
And spread her apron to it. She put out her hand
Among the harp-like morning-glory strings,
Taut with the dew from garden bed to eaves,
As if she played unheard the tenderness
That wrought on him beside her in the night.

"Warren," she said, "he has come home to die:
You needn't be afraid he'll leave you this time."

"Home," he mocked gently.

"Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he's nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail."

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in."

"I should have called it
Something you somehow haven't to deserve."

Warren leaned out and took a step or two,
Picked up a little stick, and brought it back
And broke it in his hand and tossed it by.

"Silas has better claim on us you think
Than on his brother? Thirteen little miles
As the road winds would bring him to his door.
Silas has walked that far no doubt to-day.
Why didn't he go there? His brother's rich,
A somebody -- director in the bank."

"He never told us that."

"We know it though."

"I think his brother ought to help, of course.
I'll see to that if there is need. He ought of right
To take him in, and might be willing to --
He may be better than appearances.
But have some pity on Silas. Do you think
If he'd had any pride in claiming kin
Or anything he looked for from his brother,
He'd keep so still about him all this time?"

"I wonder what's between them."

"I can tell you.
Silas is what he is -- we wouldn't mind him --
But just the kind that kinsfolk can't abide.
He never did a thing so very bad.
He don't know why he isn't quite as good
As anyone. He won't be made ashamed
To please his brother, worthless though he is."

"I can't think Si ever hurt anyone."

"No, but he hurt my heart the way he lay
And rolled his old head on that sharp-edged chair-back.
He wouldn't let me put him on the lounge.
You must go in and see what you can do.
I made the bed up for him there to-night.
You'll be surprised at him -- how much he's broken.
His working days are done; I'm sure of it."

"I'd not be in a hurry to say that."

"I haven't been. Go, look, see for yourself.
But, Warren, please remember how it is:
He's come to help you ditch the meadow.
He has a plan. You mustn't laugh at him.
He may not speak of it, and then he may.
I'll sit and see if that small sailing cloud
Will hit or miss the moon."

It hit the moon.
Then there were three there, making a dim row,
The moon, the little silver cloud, and she.

Warren returned -- too soon, it seemed to her,
Slipped to her side, caught up her hand and waited.

"Warren," she questioned.

"Dead," was all he answered.

Robert Frost, 1914

as a matter of fact, every time I see 'London' I hear Greg Brown's version in my head. For the life of me I can't hear it against 'I Shall Be Released'. Even when I smack myself on the side of the head.

JakeB: Greg Brown is one of my favorites (and an incredibly nice guy... hilzoy: weren't you there the night Greg Brown and Rainer jammed in my living room following one of his Tucson concerts? Seems I have a few pix from that night).

Now, Jake: try putting the London text side by side with Dylan's lyric to I Shall Be Released. You'll see that not only in meter, rhythm & cadence are they virtually identical, but also spookily similar in sense/meaning.

Check it out.


Thanks. I see what you mean, but the sand-gems transformation is puzzling. Does Blake say the sand - Newton et al - is confusing, or just useless, or a useful but incomplete part of the whole? Unclear to me.

I think the point about gems is that a grain of sand is not a very interesting object in indirect light but might (as Bishop notes) be a (tiny) gem and sparkle in the sun's rays. That is, hidden in the dross of the material world are precious things, and God's light reveals them to us.

I don't know that the poem has a position on the significance of a grain of sand in particular. Blake's philosophy is pretty murky and uninteresting to me, but it's sort of against the lyric impulse to say _anything_ doesn't matter. He did write famously:

"To see the world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wildflower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour."

rilkefan: he also said "One thought fills immensity" and "The eye altering alters all." Two of my favorites from the Proverbs of Hell. Right next to "The truth can never be told so as to be understood and not believed."

Blake also had incredibly vivid visual hallucinations from which he drew a lot of imagery for his paintings, if I remember correctly.

xanax, yes. I still have the tape. (Don't you? If so, could you send me a copy? Mine is sort of worn out, and it was one of the great jams of all time, imho.)

(And it's kind of delightful the way it ends, with Rainer saying: wait, is this thing on?, and hitting the mike with his finger.)

hil: miraculously, among the bazillion or so various cassette tapes in my possession of everything from the most random unintended borborygmus to the most ingenous impromptu song of every wayward scoundrel to pass through my Drachman St. digs in those days, the GB/Rainer jam tape was in the first place i looked and right on top. it's in my hand and now, if it still plays (what was that... about 1986?) I'll make you a copy. I'm looking for their drunken 15 minute ad libbed version of "Ring of Fire"... truly an inspired moment in music history. Do you recall... oh great rememberer?

er, "ingenious," genius.

And, hallelujah, yes it plays. "Last Fair Deal" playing now, plus background chatter... divine aliveness.


Hoping that poetry threads are still open threads, I'd call attention with a small whoopy whoopy to this from D. Kyle Sampson.

At the very least it's, um, informative.

xanax: 'ring of fire' was awesome. So were some of the instrumentals, and iirc there were several versions of 'Last Fair Deal Going Down'. I think it was '88.

For the rest of you: this was one of the truly awesome parties of the 20th century, featuring Greg Brown and Rainer Ptacek, who was an absolutely phenomenal guitar player, and all around good guy, and the rest of us just singing in the background and listening.


xanax: wow. What a great version of 'Deadly Sins', and an awesome 'I am a sinner'. And I would never have thought of Rainer singing Billie Holiday, but it is of course a natural.

Otherwise: takes me back. ;)

(While I'm on the subject of worn out tapes: still got the Westwood Sessions?)

Oh, and the ad libbed Ring of Fire: I actually liked the guitar best, but of the verses, my favorite (if my memory is at all right):

I never would have had a prayer
If I'd fallen in a square
The only cheerful thing
When I got burned, at least it was in a ring

I fell into a burning ring of fire (etc, rest of the chorus.)

hil: Which Westwood Sessions tapes? (There were many "Westwood Sessions"). Do you have the "Thunderhead North" CD? Speaking of which, Paul Richards (former bass player, currently Associate Professor of Composition at U of Florida ... yes, the Gator Nation) is in town visiting and will be staying with me this weekend.

Pure joy.

Last related note: has everyone heard Dick Dale's version of 'Ring of Fire'? Very good.

xanax: Rainer's, I would think from '87 or so. And yes, I have your CD ;) Though, personally, I prefer a lot of the random tapes I have, most of which are also more or less dead. You can send any of them from circa 86-88 as well, if you'd like, pretty please with sugar on it (she said, greedily.)

And say hi to Paul (and Jim, if you run into him.)

It seems to me that the poem is referring to a particular incident in Jewish "history" or prehistory : the escape from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea. Voltaire, Rousseau,etc. are cast in the role of modern day Egyptians at a momentous turning point : the separating of the Red Sea effectively separated Egyptians and (the future) Jewish people. The paths could refer to the long road of nomadic wandering ahead during which time the Jewish people became sufficiently collective to constitute a people (complete at the reception of the ten commandments, or words of life). The tents, indications of a nomadic existence, could hint at The Tent, sanctuary of the holy of holies, the ark and covenant.
What is interesting is that Blake highlights that what the Egyptians see, and what the Hebrews see is not the same thing at all...although the basic "reality" is identical.


You are right about ee cummings. He is the only 20th century poet that I really, realy enjoy.

He had a background as a painter and he brought an interesting visual presentation to text in a way that I've never seen before or since.

The only cummings poem that really stands up after repeated readings for me is:





Speaking of Blake, his mention of Newton brought to my mind a fragment, a couple of lines from a longer work which I once saw and have mostly forgotten. I thought it was Blake, but haven't been able to find it in my resources, either paper or electronic. Do the lines "...May God us keep / From single-vision'd Newton's sleep!" ring a bell with anyone?

I'll play with the cummings gang; this one has always been far and away my favorite:

as freedom is a breakfastfood

as freedom is a breakfastfood
or truth can live with right and wrong
or molehills are from mountains made
-long enough and just so long
will being pay the rent of seem
and genius please the talentgang
and water most encourage flame

as hatracks into peachtrees grow
or hopes dance best on bald men's hair
and every finger is a toe
and any courage is a fear
-long enough and just so long
will the impure think all things pure
and hornets wail by children stung

or as the seeing are the blind
and robins never welcome spring
nor flatfolk prove their world is round
nor dingsters die at break of dong
and common's rare and millstones float
-long enough and just so long
tomorrow will not be too late

worms are the words but joy's the voice
down shall go which and up come who
breasts will be breasts and thighs will be thighs
deeds cannot dream what dreams can do
-time is a tree (this life one leaf)
but love is the sky and i am for you
just so long and long enough

OK, if it's a cummingsfest, i can play too:

"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country 'tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?"

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

-- e. e. cummings

And, from back in the day when i was trying to seduce young women, and thought poetry might be the way to do it:

may i feel said he
(i'll squeal said she
just once said he)
it's fun said she

(may i touch said he
how much said she
a lot said he)
why not said she

(let's go said he
not too far said she
what's too far said he
where you are said she)

may i stay said he
(which way said she
like this said he
if you kiss said she

may i move said he
is it love said she)
if you're willing said he
(but you're killing said she

but it's life said he
but your wife said she
now said he)
ow said she

(tiptop said he
don't stop said she
oh no said he)
go slow said she

(cccome?said he
ummm said she)
you're divine!said he
(you are Mine said she)

e.e. cummings

I believe Blake is reminding us that you can't win an argument with sarcasm (Voltaire) and you waste your life going round and round the Plato-to-Rousseau track of saying that if you can't prove something absolutely, that you know nothing.

Blake might label Voltaire and Rousseau forces leading to tyranny (Urizon) as opposed to counterforces in his own nation (say, Locke's empiricism and Newton's scientific mysticism) which lead to freedom.

Along this line of thought, Blake would urge us to use our lives do develop clear sightedness (what Coleridge calls "unwounded ken") and gratitude for the brightness of the world ("effulgence").

Thus, Blake is probably saying the same thing his contemporary, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, tell us in his poem about Freedom:

from: The Destiny of Nations

For what is Freedom, but the unfettered use

Of all the powers which God for use had given

But chiefly this, him First, him Last to view

Through meaner powers and secondary things

Effulgent, as through clouds that veil his blaze.

For all that meets the bodily sense I deem

Symbolical, one mighty alphabet

For infant minds; and we in this low world

Placed with our backs to bright Reality,

That we may learn with long unwounded ken

The substance from its shadow.

-- Samuel Taylor Colerige (1795)
Effulgent = shining brilliantly
Ken = perception, understanding; range of vision

Combining poetry and taxes I recall Robert Frost writing:

Never ask of money spent
Where the spener thinks it went.
Nobody was ever meant
To remember or invent
What he did with every cent.

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