The Mystery of William Blake – An Introduction
with Joe Safdie
Tuesday 7th June 2022 – 6:30pm – 8:00pm (UK time)
Those who have been told,” William Blake pled in his Descriptive Catalog of works for sale, “that my Works are but an unscientific and irregular Eccentricity, a Madman’s Scrawls, I demand of them to do me the justice to examine before they decide.” Unfortunately, relatively few people have taken him up on that invitation, which is a shame, because once one starts looking into what he produced, he comes to seem very sane indeed – too sane, perhaps, for his contemporaries, and maybe even for us.
We don’t have time in 90 minutes to fully do him justice, but we’ll get a taste of some of his constant principles: a unity, for example, of Body and Soul. “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses,” he wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. He also always argued for an intensity of perception, believing that we could see more in the world if we weren’t so bound by common-sense views of it. Perhaps the most famous example of this visionary perception comes near the end of A Vision of the Last Judgment: “What,” it will be Question’d, “When the sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?” O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”
Passages like that have made people question the man’s sanity. But as Northrop Frye points out, “The Hallelujah-Chorus perception of the sun makes it a far more real sun than the guinea-sun, because more imagination has gone into perceiving it.”
“If the doors of perception were cleans’d,” Blake writes in Marriage, “every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.” Aldous Huxley took those words for his book The Doors of Perception, and Jim Morrison named his band after them. The last lines of that work, from “A Song of Liberty,” are “Every thing that lives is Holy.”
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Joe Safdie’s latest book of poems is The Oregon Trail (Spuyten Duyvil); previous books and their publishers include Mary Shelley’s Surfboard (Blue Press, 2008), Scholarship (BlazeVox, 2014) and Coastal Zone (Spuyten Duyvil, 2016). His own trail to Oregon included stops in California (most recently in San Diego, where he taught English Literature and Creative Writing), Colorado (Boulder), Washington (Seattle) and the Czech Republic (Olomouc and Prague): now in Portland, he’s studying the language of trees. His talk on Charles Olson for the American Literature Association is now available on YouTube; other poems, essays, and reviews can be found in Jacket, Jacket2, Caesura, Dispatches from the Poetry Wars and many other journals and periodicals.