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Illustrations to Blair's The Grave
The idea that death and life are intertwined in a complex matrix through which we both feed and are fed, was first recorded by Heraclitus. The idea was seminal and reached the minds of a string of thinkers.
Blake found it somewhere and used it as an ingredient in the poetic expression he was creating. But with the content of the thought, he found also the paradigm for thinking in a non-rational, non-linear way which he recognized as reflecting the greater mind to which he was related.
Edwin Ellis wrote an early book containing Blake's poetry and background information together with William Butler Yeats who was a major poet in his own right. We pick up here the thread of thought from Heraclitus which had illuminated Blake, and then became an 'obsession' to Yates.
The website of the Charles Williams Society provides information on the influence of Heraclitus on Yeats and on Williams: "Yeats came across Heraclitus in 1909, when he recorded the third and fourth of those above in his Journal"
[These are the two aphorisms of Heraclitus which Yeats wrote in his journal]:
"War is the father of all and the king of all; and some he has made gods and some
men, some bound and some free.
The immortals are mortal, the mortals immortal, each living in the others’ death
and dying in the others’ life. "
Continuing quoting from the website:
"Yeats did not publish this Journal, but the final phrase of the fragment, in the form ‘dying the other’s life, living the other’s death’, became an obsession with him in his
"A Vision is Yeats’s book of occult wisdom. It was first published in 1925, in an
edition of 600 signed copies ‘privately printed for subscribers only’. It was therefore not
an easy book to find, and it is a testimony to [Charles] Williams’s interest in Yeats that he did obtain it, and praised it in his 1930 essay on Yeats as ‘that learned and profound work’"
"The phrase which interested him [Williams] occurs first in one of Yeats’s characteristic
discussions of gyres, those interpenetrating cones which occur only in discussions of
Yeats, but there turn up all the time. After a particularly tangled and abstruse passage we
come across: It is as though the first act of being, after creating limit, was to divide itself into male and female, each dying the other’s life living the other’s death."
In the following poem, Charles Williams uses the same phrases from Heraclitus in describing a central formulation of his thought: that humans, like Christ, are called to bear one another's burdens through 'substitution':
Taliessin Through Logres, The Region on the Summer Stars, Arthurian Torso, by Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, Page 154:
The Region of the Summer Stars
The Founding of the Company ... "The Company's second mode bore farhter the labour and fruition; it exchanged the proper self and whatever need was drew daily breath in another's place, according to the grace of the Spirit 'dying each other's life, living each other's death'. Terrible and lovely is the general substitution of souls the Flesh-taking ordained for its mortal images in its first creation, and now Its sublime self shows, since deigned to be dead in the sted of each man."
Turning now to Blake's poetry we find ways he found that man and man, and man and God are related through the interplay of living and dying.
Songs of Innocence & of Experience, Song 27, (E 16) "On Anothers Sorrow Can I see anothers woe, And not be in sorrow too. Can I see anothers grief, And not seek for kind relief? Can I see a falling tear, And not feel my sorrows share, Can a father see his child, Weep, nor be with sorrow fill'd. Can a mother sit and hear, An infant groan an infant fear-- No no never can it be. Never never can it be." Marriage of Heaven & Hell, Plate 7, (E 36) "The most sublime act is to set another before you." Milton, Plate 11 , (E 105) "And it was enquir'd: Why in a Great Solemn Assembly The Innocent should be condemn'd for the Guilty? Then an Eternal rose Saying. If the Guilty should be condemn'd, he must be an Eternal Death And one must die for another throughout all Eternity." Jerusalem, Plate 96, (E 155) "Jesus replied Fear not Albion unless I die thou canst not live But if I die I shall arise again & thou with me This is Friendship & Brotherhood without it Man Is Not So Jesus spoke! the Covering Cherub coming on in darkness Overshadowd them & Jesus said Thus do Men in Eternity One for another to put off by forgiveness, every sin Albion replyd. Cannot Man exist without Mysterious Offering of Self for Another, is this Friendship & Brotherhood I see thee in the likeness & similitude of Los my Friend Jesus said. Wouldest thou love one who never died For thee or ever die for one who had not died for thee And if God dieth not for Man & giveth not himself Eternally for Man Man could not exist. for Man is Love: As God is Love: every kindness to another is a little Death In the Divine Image nor can Man exist but by Brotherhood"
The French Revolution, Prophetic Works Unegraved, (E 294)
"But go, merciless man! enter into the infinite labyrinth of another's brain
Ere thou measure the circle that he shall run. Go, thou cold recluse, into the fires
Of another's high flaming rich bosom, and return unconsum'd, and write laws.
If thou canst not do this, doubt thy theories, learn to consider all men as thy equals,
Thy brethren, and not as thy foot or thy hand, unless thou first fearest to hurt them."