This illustration of William Blake was published 200 years ago
This year marks the 200th anniversary of America’s 1813 defeat of Great Britain and their American Indian allies for the control of the Great Lakes region in the War of 1812.
In this “Second War of American Independence,” the British Empire failed to take back her American colony, even as she tried to do so, cynically using its native peoples. Vast designs always trump the politically correct.
William Blake, like many English Romantic poets, such as Coleridge, Southey, and Keats, took a great interest in what was happening in America. Blake’s first illuminated book of poems was called “America, A Prophecy.”
Blake was a radical freak, hated by the British establishment, but the Americans struggling against the oppressive British Empire were never able to figure out what Willie Blake was saying when he wrote about America.
Who the hell knows what the following means?
‘I know thee, I have found thee, and I will not let thee go:
Thou art the image of God who dwells in darkness of Africa,
And thou art fall’n to give me life in regions of dark death.
On my American plains I feel the struggling afflictions
Endur’d by roots that writhe their arms into the nether deep.
I see a Serpent in Canada who courts me to his love,
In Mexico an Eagle, and a Lion in Peru;
I see a Whale in the south-sea, drinking my soul away.
O what limb-rending pains I feel! thy fire and my frost
Mingle in howling pains, in furrows by thy lightnings rent.
This is eternal death, and this the torment long foretold.’
“A Serpent in Canada” recalls the network that produced the actions of John Wilkes-Booth in the “Third War of American Independence,” the U.S. Civil War, fifty-two years later, or it might have something to do with the War of 1812, as well. But with William ”howling pains” Blake, no one really knows. This is not to knock Blake’s genius, but he was a loon, and the American experiment to him probably meant “free love” more than anything else. The complexities of U.S./British geopolitics was far beyond the Blake of “Thou art the image of God who dwells in darkness of Africa” and yet Blake was no doubt writing in code to avoid being tossed into a British prison.
If Blake was a typically English radical: too crazy/clever to be a danger to anyone, Robert Frost was the son of a San Francisco politician—(Democrat all the way) who tried to enlist to fight for the South in the Civil War (but was too young).
In other words, Robert Frost was the heir to the States’ rights politics which almost doomed the United States in the “Third War of American Independence.” Frost turned New England crankiness into American Poetry gold.
It is the 50th anniversary of Frost’s death and the 100th anniversary of the publication of Frost’s first book, his trip to England as an unknown poet, and the discovery of Frost by another crank, Ezra Pound, who happened to be another States’ rights loon.
The Dymock Poets—their 100th anniversary, as well, a group decimated by the First World War (England was now finally our friend and hating on Germany) helped Frost, too. but Pound got Frost into Poetry, and a star was born. If you haven’t heard of the Dymock Poets, it’s probably because Pound didn’t like them. If you wanted to be a famous poet in the 20th century, you had to meet one person: Pound. Frost took a trip to England in 1913 and got lucky.
Which brings us to our March Madness 2013 clash between Frost and Blake. Both poets are seeking the Sweet Sixteen with poems of alterity, and both poems might have something to do with the 400 year love/hate relationship between England and the United States.
MENDING WALL–Robert Frost
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
A POISON TREE—William Blake
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,
And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
This is fascinating stuff.
Frost, it is pretty certain from the poem, never “told his wrath” to his neighbor, even as he (Frost) harbors feelings that his neighbor is a “old-stone savage armed.”
Blake’s seems the more psychologically astute, the cleverer in terms of hostile action, just as one would expect the British to be.
Frost, the American, in his depiction of war, by comparison, seems lumbering and obvious: “He moves in darkness it seems to me–Not of woods only and the shades of trees.” Also, note how the Frost poem reflects economic America’s plenty (apples…cows…) and a lack of any reason to fight at all: “My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines…”
Frost seems matter-of-fact and reasonable compared to Blake, and “Mending Wall” is a triumph of that sort of rambling, calm, lower-your-blood-pressure, free verse that neither Pound nor Williams nor Eliot could quite pull off.
Frost made it big in the wake of the insanity of World War One, and the comforting, New England humor of “My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines” was probably Frost’s highest moment—-exactly the tone, the imagery, the everything, that American poetry was looking for at that moment in history.
Blake’s poem is darker, more cunning, but Frost’s insouciant masterpiece strikes a blow for Modernism against Romanticism’s emotionalism.
Still, this year’s Scarriet March Madness is a Romanticsm-themed tournament.
Blake 66 Frost 60