Songs of Innocence, Experience and a Galaxy Far, Far Away

By John Higgs

Just as certain religious believers privilege the cultivation of a personal relationship with the divine, those of us with the chutzpah to call ourselves Blakeans often make of the poet-artist-visionary a William Blake of our own. One scholar I knew speculated that, like herself, the poet must have had high histamine levels — and this might help to explain his extraordinary creativity. Yeats admired Blake so much that he tried to claim him for the Irish. The Blake who first fired me up was the political Blake, in whom I saw a kinship with other, later thinkers I already admired. The telling-off I got in an undergraduate seminar still stings: If I could get over my “junior Marxist training,” the teacher said, I might actually come to know Blake’s poems.

This is John Higgs’s second book about the poet, following 2019’s manifesto, “William Blake Now: Why He Matters More Than Ever,” from which this project was spawned. That the English author, journalist and cultural historian has previously written about Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, the experimental, electronic band the KLF and a whole host of both old- and newfangled strangeness supplied some advance notion of who his Blake might be. I was prepared for the far-out, whoa-dude version of Blake. Fortunately, Higgs dismisses the idea that Blake “took psychedelic drugs, and this was an explanation for his work,” but my expectations were not entirely misdirected.

Higgs’s Blake is not the tripped-out proto-hippie of some renderings, nor is he a Blake for everyone — although Higgs, despite his book’s pugilistic title and his close examination of many of the major quarrels in Blake’s life, sometimes presents a suspiciously conciliatory portrait of a poet who, he says, “accepts all sides.” A glance at Blake’s annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds’s discourses shows how scathingly he could reject ideas he knew to be appalling; a quick reading of his damning poem “London” would do the job, too. Higgs’s Blake is, instead, a Blake for anyone whose sensibilities harmonize with Higgs’s interests in neuroscience and quantum mechanics, “Star Wars” analogies, and discussions of Carl Jung and Eckhart Tolle.

The book is organized along unconventional lines. Loosely chronological, it is also often biographical (there is much about Blake’s marriage). Important figures in Blake’s life and thought, like Swedenborg, get considerable attention. And, frequently, Higgs veers into long philosophical and scientific larks.

William Blake depicted in an 1807 painting by Thomas Phillips.Credit…Universal History Archive/Getty Images

I repeatedly made recourse to the Blakean framework of “Innocence” and “Experience” while reading and thinking about “William Blake vs. the World.” How others will receive the book may well depend on where they sit on the innocent-to-experienced continuum. To me, Higgs often comes across as a bewilderingly innocent reader of Blake, his ear untuned to the poet’s frequencies of irony and humor and to the interpretive and emotional possibilities they extend. But Higgs’s writing is consistently clear and confident, even when he is wrong. Of Blake’s “Songs of Innocence,” he notes, “It is interesting that he chose to write a collection of songs for children rather than for adult gatherings.” As some scholars have noted, Blake never made this explicit.

It’s not hard to see why Higgs assumed that they were written for children. In the introduction to “Songs of Innocence,” Blake describes the poems that follow as “happy songs / Every child may joy to hear,” but Higgs misses the ambiguities here. Every child (but not adult) may (but also may not) get joy from the songs. Higgs writes that “Blake described a world of play and delight, infused with the message that spiritual beings were watching over all children, so they had nothing to fear” — which will be news to the many readers who have perceived sinister undercurrents and intimations in these verses. (George Orwell, who adapted the title of his harrowing boarding-school essay “Such, Such Were the Joys” from a line in “The Echoing Green,” clocked the irony.)

Higgs’s sunny take on “Songs of Innocence” will also surprise anyone who detects from the wooden diction and reductive moralizing at the end of the poem “The Chimney Sweeper” — So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm” — that something isn’t right. But Higgs writes:

“The last line was in keeping with a general theme in ‘Songs of Innocence,’ the idea that a loving paternal God would protect all who were good. This was both naïve and untrue, as the reality of child sweeps’ lives demonstrated. When Blake came to write a companion verse for ‘Songs of Experience’ five years later, he had clearly realized his mistake.”

Blake made no mistake; he would have been aware of the dismal reality of the lives of the young sweeps. The companion piece he wrote later is neither a mea culpa nor a correction; the poems are written from perspectives that differ—or are, as Blake might have it, “contraries.”” At any stage, Blake would have questioned the conventional piety that “a loving paternal God would protect all who were good.””

Throughout, Higgs rightly and persuasively emphasizes the primacy and power of the imagination in Blake’s work — “I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight I look thro it & not with it” — which makes his insistently literal readings of many of Blake’s writings perplexing. His analysis of the “Proverbs of Hell” in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” reveals the same resistance to irony seen in his readings of “Songs of Innocence.” Blake read Milton deeply, if idiosyncratically, and gleaned from “Paradise Lost,” among other things, that Satan can really be a hoot. Blake “is not saying that there is no difference between heaven and hell,” Higgs tells us, nor “is he arguing that they are both as bad as each other. He writes very clearly that: ‘Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.’” Again, the clipped diction — and blunt, declarative cheek — of those lines might lead other readers to another conclusion.

Higgs is more convincing when writing about Blake’s knotty and paradoxical views on the natural world, and when he underscores the essential, pervasive sexuality in Blake’s output. His own project is Blakean in at least one respect: It is the production of a busy and open mind. At times, his protracted ruminations on sciences and philosophies took me farther from Blake rather than closer to him, and his profusion of pop-culture pings (the Beatles, David Bowie, Pharrell Williams, Kanye West, even Billy Joel all show up) felt superfluous. (“Enough! or Too much,” goes the end of the “Proverbs of Hell.”)

At other times, it was fun to witness Higgs’s cogs turning, to hear his thoughts ricocheting against the walls of his internal archive of affinities, allusions and absorptions. His tone is measured, but Higgs does not cease from mental fight in his earnest quest to understand and explain a mind that, he writes, is perhaps “too big a mind for us to ever properly grasp.” Maybe that’s why, when I came to the end of his book, I felt I’d learned more about the mind of John Higgs than that of William Blake.

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