Blake seeks to provide the Golden String which can lead us through the labyrinth of our experience or his own poetry.

Friday, June 14, 2013


British Museum
Songs of Innocence & of Experience
Plate 24
Copy A

Songs of Innocence & of Experience, Song 5, (E 7)
 "The Shepherd.

How sweet is the Shepherds sweet lot,
From the morn to the evening he strays:
He shall follow his sheep all the day
And his tongue shall be filled with praise.

For he hears the lambs innocent call,
And he hears the ewes tender reply,
He is watchful while they are in peace,
For they know when their Shepherd is nigh."

The Shepherd from Songs of Innocence portrays an exaggerated image of the idyllic role of the shepherd and sheep. Tending sheep tends to require more attention than is provided by this, straying, listening, praising shepherd. His flock is so peaceful that he has become detached in his watching. Knowing the presence of the shepherd is enough to keep the sheep at peace. Only in a state of complete innocent somnambulance could a shepherd be so nonchalant about the sheep under his care.

Blake may be emphasizing that the state of Innocence is transitory: that it may be visited and appreciated but it can't or shouldn't be sustained. The sheep will not always be peaceful and the shepherd has other duties besides praise.

Blake would have been familiar with this passage from Ezekiel in which it is the shepherd who selfishly neglects the flock who causes the sheep to suffer. Whether he is talking about a flock of sheep or the people of Israel, Ezekiel condemns the shepherd for failing to care for those for whom he is responsible. 

Ezekiel 34
[1] And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,
[2] Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks?
[3] Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock.
[4] The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them.
[5] And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered.
[6] My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them.

Here is a shepherd actively caring for his sheep.

British Museum
Songs of Innocence & of Experience

Plate 47
Copy A
Songs of Innocence & of Experience, Song 46, (E 26) 

I wander thro' each charter'd street,     
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet             
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man, 
In every Infants cry of fear, 
In every voice: in every ban, 
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear 

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,  
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear 
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse"  
In the poem London from Songs of Experience Blake assumes the role of the observer seeing the consequences of the failure of the authorities - the government, the church, the parents - to provide men, women and children with care and protection. The powerful create the conditions under which the powerless suffer. The manacles are forged by the desperation created by poverty, by the law, by war and by disease. But it is those who exploit the institutions for their own benefit who bear the burden of guilt for creating the conditions in which the manacles are forged.  

Milton O Percival in William Blake's Circle of Destiny tells us of man's decline as he loses consciousness of Eternity. Degradation follows degradation until he turns away, and his heart, mind and eyes are opened to a new life.  

"In Blake's myth the consequences of error are inescapable. Albion cuts himself off from the living God and descends at once into the Hell of Ulro. So too with the individual. He may, if lucky escape the condemnation of his fellow men; he cannot escape the Ulro of his own spiritual poverty. All whose hearts are given over to malice, hatred and vengeance traverse the wheel of Ulro. It may be escaped only in true Gnostic fashion, by the birth of Christ in the soul. The doctrine of states is witness to such a birth. It is itself nothing less than a changed interpretation of spiritual experience. It is in that sense the immediate avenue of escape, but the real escape is in the regeneration by which a change in outlook is made possible." (Page 236)

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