This is a draft of my writing sample for Graduate School in English, slightly reformatted for E2. If you find errors, PLEASE CONTACT ME! All criticism is encouraged and appreciated!

Bruce Seaton
Prof. Flynn

Fit audience find tho’ few: Eliot’s Error in Examining Blake

“The ignorant Insults of Individuals will not
hinder me from doing my duty to my Art.”

               -William Blake, An Advertisement


In his essay William Blake, T. S. Eliot makes a series of incorrect but telling claims in examining Blake and his poetical works. The central issue of Eliot’s essay is that in Blake’s poems, especially in his later, longer works like Milton, the poet sacrifices poetic form in favor of philosophy. Eliot argues that Blake’s lack of exposure to preceding literature, in combination with certain aspects of the British social environment at the time, caused him to be unable to place his ideas in “a framework of accepted and traditional ideas.” This lack of framework, Eliot asserts, causes Blake’s later work to be uncontrolled, self-indulgent, and ambiguous.

We may wonder why Eliot would even make these claims about Blake’s work, given the carefully crafted formlessness of significant pieces of Eliot’s own poetry, but, as we cannot ask him, we must avoid such digression and work with what Eliot has left us. We must examine what exactly are the flaws in Eliot’s statements, and then examine what Eliot’s mistake was in coming to these conclusions.

Eliot states that Blake’s genius was somehow deprived of “a framework of accepted and traditional ideas which would have prevented him from indulging in a philosophy of his own, and concentrated his attention upon the problems of the poet,” and “that, being early apprenticed to a manual occupation, he was not compelled to acquire any other education in literature than he wanted . . . Blake . . . knew what interested him, and he therefore presents only the essential.” Eliot concedes, however, that “Blake up to twenty is decidedly a traditional.” Eliot seems confounded by this glaring discrepancy: how can a man begin his career as a traditional poet, and yet be unexposed to traditional literature? Although Eliot skirts this fundamental flaw in his argument by largely ignoring it, we must admit that Blake begins with classical forms in The Songs of Innocence and Experience and moves slowly into a much less traditional style by the end of his career.

Rather than irrationally asserting from this evidence that Blake apparently learned and then forgot the forms he knew early in his life, we must first determine whether or not Blake actually did abandon classical poetic traditions. If he did, we must conclude that Blake moved away from traditional poetic forms for a reason. Finally, we must discern his reasons for this rebellion.

We will first examine Eliot’s assertion that Blake had no exposure to classical literature and, therefore, to its traditional framework, and whether or not Blake was, in fact, concerned with “the problems of the poet”--namely, rhyme, meter, allusion. There are numerous references in Blake’s work and notes that refute these claims; these examples begin at the very outset of Blake’s career and continue until the final year of his life.

Early Works

Blake’s poem To the Muses, written no later than 1777, when Blake was only twenty, opens with the lines:
Whether on Ida’s shady brow,
Or in the chambers of the East,
The chambers of the sun, that now
From antient melody have ceas’d;
In this opening stanza, Blake makes mention of “Ida’s shady brow,” referencing a mountain described in Homer’s epics. The poem also shows a very regular iambic tetrameter form and alternating ABAB rhyme scheme. Eliot mentions this poem in his essay, using it to show Blake’s use of established forms as a young man, but he ignores Blake's reference to Mt. Ida.

In All Religions Are One, Blake’s First Principle is as follows:
That the Poetic Genius is the true Man, and that the body or outward form of Man is derived from the Poetic Genius.
Likewise the forms of all things are derived from their Genius, which by the Ancients was call’d an Angel & Spirit & Demon.

This first principle, in dealing with “the forms of things,” which are “derived from the Poetic Genius.” appears to be a response to Plato’s World of the Forms. Blake argues that it is not an ethereal or otherworldly realm which determines the nature of Man and of all things in this world, but rather that the outward forms of things are determined by an inner spirit, or Genius. In the following principles, Blake asserts that “all humans are alike in the Poetic Genius,” and that “all Religions. . . have one source.” This work shows at least a basic knowledge of Platonic philosophy--Blake has sufficient understanding of Plato’s works to reshape their principles to his own view of the world.

Published in 1789, The Book of Thel opens:
The daughters of Mne Seraphim led round their sunny flocks,
All but the youngest. She in paleness sought the secret air,
To fade away like morning beauty from her mortal day:
Down by the river Adona her soft voice is heard:
And thus her gentle lamentation falls like morning dew:

“O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water?
Why fade these children of the spring? born but to smile & fall.

There are several immediate references to classical mythology, and to preceding English Poets. Mnemosyne, goddess of memory, and the Lotus Eaters of the Odyssey are suggested alongside the paradisical gardens of Adonis in Spenser’s Faeie Queene and the Book of Genesis--all on the first plate of the work. Blake wrote this poem in an uncommonly seen but consistently used unrhymed iambic heptameter.

The opening lines of The Book of Thel also show Blake’s use of assonance and consonance. The selection “She in paleness sought the secret air/ To fade away” contains extensive use of consonants like [s], [f] and [∫] (the “sh” sound in “she”), all voiceless fricatives, whispering sounds made simply by pushing air from the mouth. These sounds suggest aurally the “secret air” described verbally in the lines. The line “And thus her gentle lamentation falls like morning dew” makes repeated use of the liquid sounds [r] and [l] and the nasals [m], [n] and [ng], and almost no use of the hard voiceless stops [p], [t], and [k]. These sounds of this line are very wet and gentle, and match well with the image of a young woman crying by a river. The whole passage contains only three aspirated stops ([ph] once, [th] twice and [kh] not at all), and creates a feeling of reverie, of subdued mourning.

Blake also uses vowel families to tie phrases and ideas together in this passage. The first sentence “The daughters of Mne Seraphim led round their sunny flocks,/ All but the youngest” uses almost exclusively vowels from the back of the mouth; [α], [⊃], [aυ], and [υ] are all used, most of them more than once. The next sentence makes more use of front vowels; [i], [ι], [e], [ε], [ei], and [ai] are the most common. The phrase “from her mortal” makes use of back vowels, but since those words describe what the character is attempting to fade from, the difference in sound change there is appropriate. The complexity of Blake’s use of vowel and consonant sound to increase the cohesion and unity of his work shows a definite attention to such details, and contradicts Eliot’s assertion that Blake’s work is “formless.”

The Shift: The Book of Urizen, Milton, and later works

The Book of Urizen, written in 1794, is a highly allusive work. The character of Los is compared to several mythological figures throughout the text. In chapter five of the piece, Los, with his great hammer and bellows, is compared to the mythic figures of Prometheus and Hephaistos.

Later, Blake makes Los a parallel figure to Milton’s Satan when Los’s tears form his daughter/wife Enitharmon. The creation of Enitharmon, who represents Pity, and the origin of Sin described by Milton in Paradise Lost are very similar. In both cases, the female offspring comes from the head of her male creator, who then rapes her. In this way, Blake seems to be creating a comparison between Sin and Pity. Both Los and Satan are severed from their place of origin (Eternity in The Book of Urizen and Heaven in Paradise Lost) by these acts of icestuous rape. In each case, the female gives birth to a son. Sin’s son is Death, who upon first meeting his father, Satan, tries to kill him. Enitharmon’s son is Orc, who represents energy and effective rebellion, and whom Los attempts futilely to restrain. In both stories the son is almost immediately in opposition to his father. In The Book of Urizen, Blake uses a considerably less regular meter and makes less frequent use of internal rhyme than in his earlier works, but individual sections are still often divided by their meter; trimeter, tetrameter, and pentameter are common in The Book of Urizen.

Milton (first published around 1808) draws enormously (and almost exclusively) from Milton’s works and from Biblical passages. Dozens of allusions to these two sources are readily apparent throughout the work, once Blake’s strangely-named characters have been sorted through. This limited allusive technique is appropriate, given the title of the work and the Miltonic purpose Blake sets for it: “To Justify the Ways of God to Men.” The meter of Milton is looser still than that of The Book of Urizen, but is largely in less regular heptameter and octameter.

In a note written in 1827 (the year Blake died) in response to Robert John Thornton’s The Lord’s Prayer, Newly Translated, Blake notes angrily that “The Greek & Roman Classics is the Antichrist.” This sentiment echoes Blake’s claim in the preface of Milton that the “Writings of Homer & Ovid, of Plato & Cicero, which all Men ought to contemn” are plagiarized from the Bible. This idea is also set forth in Milton’s The Reason of Church Government, in which Milton suggests that classical works may have used the book of Job as a basis. It is possible, then, that Blake had also read Milton’s prose work, as well as his poems.

Blake’s brief prose tracts On Homer’s Poetry and On Virgil show intimate knowledge of both classical writers, citing specific details in the stories of both writers (and even quoting Virgil by line number). The works also seem to be responses to popular opinions of the works in which Blake claims that the Greeks and Romans were the destroyers of art. This suggests that Blake was familiar with some of the huge mass of criticism of Homer and of Virgil, and understood it well enough to contradict it.

It can thus be seen that Blake had at least a basic knowledge of many classical works. From the various meters Blake uses in a very traditional fashion (especially in his earliest works), we must assume that, despite (as Eliot notes) “being a humble engraver,” Blake had at least some education in the traditional form, structure, subject matter, and meaning of classical poetry.


As Eliot notes, then, we can see a slow but steady break from the traditional poetic forms. The question then is this: why would a poet, however rebellious, educated in the established forms of poetry, choose to break away from those forms? The answer to this question is inseparably linked to the crucial error Eliot makes in his assessment of Blake.

Eliot seems only to see Blake the poet, but the whole truth of Blake is far greater. Blake was also an engraver, printer, painter, bookbinder. Like a nineteenth-century DaVinci, Blake delved into invention and new artistic media, inventing (or rather “rediscovering”) a new form of painting--the portable fresco. Also like DaVinci, Blake was a visionary, and although his visions of the future dealt more with human nature than physics and science, the multifaceted Blake is possibly even more misunderstood and unappreciated than the multifaceted DaVinci.

Does this make Blake a romantic Renaissance Man? Although the term is a more modern invention, Blake might have understood its implications--and denied them. The major point that Eliot misses in his view of Blake and Blake’s work is simple, and once noticed, cannot be ignored, for it is repeated in nearly all of his work: Blake, in his own eyes, at least, was not merely a poet, but a Prophet. Eliot seems to either ignore or under-appreciate Blake’s repeated claim to the power of Prophecy. In his early work All Religions Are One, Blake states from the outset that the words of the work are “The Voice of one crying in the Wilderness,” a Biblical phrase used in reference to both the prophet Isaiah and to John the Baptist. This honor is extended in Blake’s final illuminated work, The Ghost of Abel, to George Gordon, Lord Byron, who Blake views as another crier “in the Wilderness.”

Blake’s America and Europe are not called poems, they are Prophecies. The Book of Urizen, The Book of Ahania, and The Book of Los, all of which were set in Biblical double-columns are collectively “The Bible of Hell,” and, like the Christian Bible are divided into chapters and verses. Even his “Memorable Fancies” are satiric responses to the religious tracts of Swedenborg. Eliot seems unable to see these works as anything other than poems, despite Blake’s own insistence that they are something more.

Blake, then, did not abandon form at all. He ceased to use traditional English poetic forms because his work was not in response to traditional English poetry. Blake adopted the literary form of the Bible, because Christian mythology was the subject of his scrutiny. “The problems of the poet” became less important for Blake than the Problems of the Prophet. Because Blake was creating an entirely new mythology in response to, and completely outside of Christian doctrine, it would be not only ridiculous, but self-defeating for him to allude to traditional allusionary figures, in which he had no belief.

This is final point that Eliot misses: Blake refused in his later poetry to allude to a traditional “framework” because he viewed that framework as empty, dead, and meaningless. He could no more rely classical or Biblical stories than the New Testament relies on Grecian mythologies. In order to create an entirely new mythology, Blake necessarily refused to allude to previous mythologies.
Thanks to Bitriot and Dylandog for helpful fixes

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