Allen Ginsberg and William Blake

Photograph by Cynthia MacAdams

For the last couple of days, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time with the Beats. I read through Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind (triggered by watching the Republican Iowa Caucus), followed by plenty of Gregory Corso, a little Rexroth, and some McClure, too. But today has been an Allen Ginsberg kind of day. Without planning to, I wove Ginsberg into my AP European History class via Blake and Romanticism (more on that in a minute), and I somehow even managed to work his poem “America” into my AP World History class.

During lunch, I sat and watched this BBC interview with him, which reminded me of the many reasons that I had fallen in love with him in college. He epitomized the kind person who lived with his eyes open to all around him, and his mind open to all the world had to offer. He was a kind, gentle soul with a keen mind. Needless to say, he was also an incredible poet.

As I talked about in a previous post, my love of the Beats stretches back about twenty years, when I was asked by an ex-boyfriend to write a paper for his twentieth century American history class. I chose to write about the Beat Generation’s role in the 1950’s countercultural movement because at the time, I was an English major focusing on English Romanticism and I had heard that there was a connection between William Blake and Allen Ginsberg.  I found out that he had had an ecstatic vision while reading Blake’s “Ah, Sunflower,” “The Sick Rose,” and “A Little Girl Lost” from Songs of Experience. He claimed that it was a pivotal moment for him, one that shaped his views of writing, his life, and the nature of the universe itself. In his “A Blake Experience,” Gingsberg wrote,

…the poem I’d read a lot of times before, overfamiliar to the point where it didn’t make any particular meaning except some sweet thing about flowers — and suddenly I realized that the poem was talking about me…Now I began understanding it, the poem I was looking at, and suddenly, simultaneously with understanding it, heard a very deep earthen grave voice in the room, which I immediately assumed, I didn’t even have to think twice, was Blake’s voice…

Looking out the window, through the window at the sky, suddenly it seemed that I saw into the depths of the universe, by looking simply into the ancient sky. The sky suddenly seemed very ancient. And this was the very

ancient place I was talking about, the sweet golden clime, I suddenly realized that this existence was it! And that I was born in order to experience up to this very moment that I was having this experience, to realize what this was all about — in other words that this was the moment I was born for.

In 1948, Ginsberg immortalized that moment in his poem “On Reading William Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose.’

Rose of spirit, rose of light,
spirit whereof all will tell,
is this black vision of my sight
the fashion of a prideful spell,
mystic charm of magic bright,
o judgement of fire and fright?

what everlasting force confounded
in its being, like some human
spirit shrunken in a bounded
immortality, what blossom
gathers us inward, astounded?
is this sickness that is doom?

With that, I then set out to read as much Ginsberg as I could get my hands on, seeing in him what I had seen in Blake so many times… the ability to make simple language a thing of almost unbearable beauty, a depth of thought and feeling that seemed nearly unending, and a the gift of a sense of liberation as my eyes read their words. They were different, to be sure. Blake, the English Romantic, mystic and rebel, who challenged his contemporaries and his readers to think more clearly and to feel more deeply. Ginsberg, the gay poet from Patterson, New Jersey, mystic, and rebel, who also challenged… wait, maybe they weren’t so different after all. Different times, different voices, but connected by their ability communicate in a manner that transcended the words on the page.

An essay titled “William Blake and Allen Ginsberg: Poets of a Fallen World, Prophets of the New World,” states that,

Whether truth or madness, Blake’s voice was certainly that of a prophet in the more general sense of the word, for he was a denouncer of the evils of the world around him, calling for a return to God and a renunciation of worldly things for spiritual. William Blake wrote at one of the most important and turbulent junctures of history, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution which in his day was radically transforming the fabric of life in city and country, creating totally new and alien problems with which the old monarchies of Europe could not cope.. . .As a poet and mystic, Blake took the stance of a radical visionary against the established order of his time.

The same can certainly be said of Allen Ginsberg. He and the Beats, like Blake, wrote during a pivotal time in Western society. For Blake and the Romantics, they were the responding and reacting to the unyielding rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment, and the complete transformation of the world around them triggered by the Industrial Revolution. For Ginsberg and the Beats, they emerged as America clamored for normalcy after the upheaval of World War II. They wrote as mainstream, white America fled from the cities and into the suburbs in an attempt to recreate the “Donna Reed” ideal that the mass media was selling. It was an America whose heterogeneity and diversity was being traded in for uniformity and conformity. Ginsberg and his fellow poets embraced Eastern mysticism over American Christianity, favored cold-water flats in crowded cities over the white-picket fenced in suburbs, and with their words attempted to lift the veil off of the country.

The same article later states that,

If we take a step back from Blake and see him in his historical context we see that he marks the beginning of a fundamental change in English language poetry. The poet, rather than representing the voice of the civilized, cultured society, became the voice of alienation and separation from society. The poet was outside the culture’s limiting structure, disillusioned by its elitism, social injustice, industrialism, materialism…

Once again, the same can be said of Ginsberg and his contemporaries. They, too, were fundamentally changing poetry, with, as Kerouac coined, their “spontaneous bop prosody,” the cadence of jazz, and the use of what Ginsberg called “kitchen English.” Their poetry became the voice of the people, and even more so, the counterculture. Their disillusionment was clearly, beautifully, and eloquently expressed in the language of the street.

Through my readings of Ginsberg this week, I came across this poem that I hadn’t read in years. It was published in 1972, the year I was born, and although not as famous as “Howl” or “Kaddish,” it’s always been among my favorites. It’s titled “Xmas Gift,” and there has always been something about it that strikes me as being reminiscent of Blake. Perhaps it’s the lines about invented universes, and creatures giving birth to themselves.

I met Einstein in a dream
Springtime on Princeton lawn grass
I kneeled down & kissed his young thumb
like a ruddy pope
his face fresh broad cheeked rosy
“I invented a universe separate,
something like a Virgin”–
“Yes, the creature gives birth to itself,”
I quoted from Mescaline
We sat down open air universal summer
to eat lunch, professors’ wives
at the Tennis Court Club,
our meeting eternal, as expected,
my gesture to kiss his fist
unexpectedly saintly
considering the Atom Bomb I didn’t mention.

Lastly, here’s a reading by Ginsberg, of Blake’s short poem “Ah! Sunflower.”  One of the three that started it all. Just beautiful.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell… Revisiting Blake

Title page of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell ...

This past week’s theme in regards to my reading seems to be the revisiting of old favorites from my “formative years” (early 20s) – Huxley’s  Island, Hume’s Inquiry,  Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (post coming soon), and after last night’s post, and in keeping with the trend, I went back and reread Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

This work is Blake’s attempt at presenting to us, in true Romanticist fashion, an argument against the dualist, Manichaean, view of good and evil which characterized Christian Europe.  Deliberately upsetting the common understanding of those very definitions of good and evil, and dark and light, Blake begins by blurring the lines.  He writes,

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

And just a few lines later he adds,

 Energy is Eternal Delight.

He opens this work by presenting the argument that humans are, and should be, both angels and devils, both reason and passion.  To deny either part is to deny our humanity. It is in these contradictions, and it is in these grey areas that we find our humanity.

The entire work, which often mimics the structures of biblical passages and prophecies, fuses the sacred and the profane, the divine and the fallen, and the spiritual and the material; in effect,  a “marriage” of heaven and hell.  Blake, unlike Dante (who also uses the literary device of imagining himself visiting hell) presents hell as a place of poetry, energy, and exuberance – a place the speaks to our passions and our physicality.  Heaven, on the other hand, is a place of reason, restrained passions, and “unacted desires.”  For Blake, neither is inherently evil nor inherently good.

The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands & feet Proportion.
As the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.
The crow wish’d every thing was black, the owl, that every thing was white.
Exuberance is Beauty.

Blake beautifully express the Romantic desire to recapture the irrational element in man, something that the Enlightenment had effectively, according to Blake, killed off (he regarded the philosophes as “unimaginative killers of the human spirit”). Echoing this idea, in another poem, “A Little Girl Lost,” Blake writes,

Children of the future age,
Reading this indignant page;
Know that in a former time,
Love! sweet love! was thought a crime.

Isaiah Berlin, in his book The Roots of Romanticism, in Proustian fashion, attempts to define Romanticism.  He writes,

Romanticism is the primitive, the untutored, it is youth, the exuberant sense of life of the natural man, but it is also pallor, fever, disease, decadence. . . It is the strange, the exotic, the grotesque, phantoms, vampires, nameless terror, the irrational, the unutterable. . . It is nostalgia, it is reverie, it is intoxicating dreams, it is sweet melancholy and bitter melancholy. . . It is energy, force, will, étalage du moi. . . It is Satanic revels, cynical irony, diabolical laughter, black heroes, but also Blake’s vision of God and his angels, the great Christian society, the eternal order, and ‘the starry heavens which can scarce express the infinite and eternal of the Christian soul.’ It is, in short, unity and multiplicity.

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,  Blake illustrates this definition eloquently and elegantly.  By “marrying” heaven and hell, by blurring our perceptions of what is base and what is sacred, Blake shows us that our very souls exist in this “unity and multiplicity.”  He is a true spokesman for his age when he calls our attention to the inherent “sturm und drang” (storm and stress) of human experience.

Also in true Romantic style, Blake not only blurs the lines between good and evil, but also between man and God.  He writes,

And at length they pronounc’d that the Gods had order’d such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.

Which is reminiscent of this quote by Sagan, from his Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,

God is an invention of Man. So the nature of God is only a shallow mystery. The deep mystery is the nature of Man.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, although one of his earlier works, captures the spirit of Romanticism beautifully.  But more than that, he truly articulates what it means to be human, with all of our contradictions and inconsistencies. We are both of the spirit and the flesh, and of the mind and the body. We are both reason and passion, intellect and lust.   He confirms and condones this as he closes the work, liberating us to embrace our entire selves,

Let the Priests of the Raven of dawn, no longer in deadly black, with hoarse note curse the sons of joy. Nor his accepted brethren, whom, tyrant, he calls free: lay the bound or build the roof. Nor pale religious letchery call that virginity, that wishes but acts not!
For every thing that lives is Holy.