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Two Poems in Different Keys

December 17, 2015

 

William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker who is now considered to be a key figure in the history of both the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. He lived in London most of his life but he produced a unique set of poems which valued the power of the imagination highly. Considered mad by some people of his time for his odd views, Blake is held in high regard by later critics for his creativity, and for the philosophy and mysticism in his work. He was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American revolutions, as well as radical thinkers, but he and his work are difficult to classify. 

 

William Wordsworth (7 April 1770 – 23 April 1850) is probably the most famous English poet and was a major English Romantic who helped to launch the Romantic Movement in English literature with the 1798 publication of Lyrical Ballads with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, another famous poet. While his greatest work is generally considered to be The Prelude, a poem in several volumes which at least partly told of his early years, the poem ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3rd, 1802’ is one of his most famous.

 

The Romantic Movement was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that began in Europe towards the end of the 18th century¡, reaching a peak between 1800 to 1840. The Industrial Revolution had caused a great deal of social change, and Romanticism was a kind of protest against that as well as being against aristocratic social and political norms and the scientific rationalization of nature which was going on at the time. It included visual arts, music, and literature and validated strong emotions like fear and awe particularly when confronting nature in a wild state. Romanticism was also about strangeness, the unfamiliar, especially when using the power of the imagination to escape.

 

The spectrum of thought and feeling conjured by this movement and by these two poets is probably nowhere better seen than in the following two poems.

 

'Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3rd, 1802' by William Wordsworth

 

Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

 

'London' by William Blake

 

I wander thro' each charter'd street,

Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

 

In every cry of every Man,

In every Infant's cry of fear,

In every voice, in every ban,

The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.

 

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry

Every black'ning Church appalls;

And the hapless Soldier's sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls.

 

But most thro' midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlot's curse

Blasts the new born Infant's tear,

And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

 

Whereas the first is clearly intended to convey serenity to its listeners, the other’s projected effect is anxiety. Adjectives like ‘fair’, ‘silent’, ‘bare’, ‘bright’ and ‘glittering’ evoke peace and light; but ‘charter’d’, ‘mind-forg’d’, ‘black’ning’, ‘hapless’ and ‘midnight’ are designed to unsettle.

 

Specific appeals to different senses have different intentions behind them. Wordsworth’s poem is all about light and vision:

 

A sight so touching in its majesty:

 

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

 

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;

 

The river glideth at his own sweet will

 

but Blake isn’t interested in external scenery, only in the innermost functions of people, their despair and the sounds they create:

 

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

 

And the hapless Soldier's sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls.

 

But most thro' midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlot's curse

Blasts the new born Infant's tear.

 

The abab rhyming and rhythm of Blake’s ‘London’ is a marching tune compared to the more civilised pace of Wordsworth’s sonnet. Blake’s oxymorons -‘charter'd Thames’, ‘black’ning Church’, ‘Marriage hearse’- jar and jolt us out of our normal expectations as we go; words like ‘black'ning', ‘midnight’, ‘curse’, ‘Blasts’, ‘blights’, ‘plagues’, and ‘hearse’ are intended to disturb us.

 

Conversely, Wordsworth’s nouns are those of either culture and civilisation -‘ships’, ‘towers’, ‘domes’, ‘theatres’, ‘temples’, ‘houses’ -or tranquil nature -‘valley’, ‘rock’, ‘hill’, ‘river’. All these come together in the final noun ‘heart’ at the end of his poem.

 

Similes and metaphors in the one -‘like a garment’, ‘wear/The beauty of the morning’, ‘The river glideth at his own sweet will’, ’the very houses seem asleep/And all that mighty heart is lying still’- are contrasted in purpose to those in the other: ‘mind-forg'd manacles’, ‘black’ning Church’, ‘midnight streets’, ‘blights with plagues the Marriage hearse’.

 

Non-living things are given living characteristics in both poems. Wordsworth’s ‘houses seem asleep’ for example, while Blake’s hapless soldier’s sigh/Runs in blood down Palace walls’. The first is lulling us into sleep along with the houses; the second solicits a sigh from us similar to that of the soldier.

 

And yet both poems take place in the same city, during the same time period, and are ‘spoken’ by the poet himself as he walks through London. Wordsworth’s interest in the external, the physical and the visual place him in the same band as writers of Epic stories; Blake’s preoccupation with the internal, the emotional and the auditory indicate that this poem at least belongs in an Ironic band.

 

Much more about stories and poetry can be found in books like The Master Authors’ Secret Handbook and How Stories Really Work, but these two poems show how the same principles that apply to story-telling also apply to poetry.

 

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