William Blake

Tiger (from Oliver Goldsmith's Animate Nature)

Lamb (from Buffon's Histoire Naturelle)

William Blake is a particularly complex figure in terms of a romantic natural history. On the one hand, Blake was hostile to “vegetable” nature in all its forms. He saw the natural world as a sign of our “fallen” condition, and his antimaterialism disdained all forms of embodied “spirit,” a category that includes at least humans and perhaps other aspects of “animate nature” as well. At the same time, Blake makes powerful use of natural imagery throughout his poems and artistic productions. For Blake, to be in nature is to be always removed from the idealized world of visionary imagination, but that does not prevent him from suggesting an interconnectedness that links all living things. As a result, his caterpillars and butterflies often have human faces, while his human figures sometimes sprout roots and branches. His birds’ tails and wings echo flower stalks and vines, while his mythic figures often connect the human form “divine” with the botanic or the bestial.

Blake may have distrusted “nature” in visionary terms, but he celebrated its physical beauty, its sensuous details, and its crucial role in our awareness of our human place in the cosmos. In “Auguries of Innocence,” for example, he reveals the cost of human ignorance of those connections that unite all aspects of creation: “The wanton Boy that kills the Fly / Shall feel the Spider’s enmity”–“He who shall hurt the little Wren / Shall never be belov’d by Men.” In many of his songs and short lyrics, Blake suggests that it is only human beings who upset balances existing throughout the rest of the natural world. “The Book of Thel,” presents a cloud, lily, clod of clay, and worm that all accept their roles in a cycle of organic life and death in a way that Thel cannot. The Four Zoas imagines an idealized future state in which the fallen aspects of human psychic integrity are reunited with themselves and with the rest of animate creation. “The Sick Rose,” by contrast, suggests that nature employs destructive processes that are at odds with human hope and optimism: “And his dark secret love / Does thy life destroy.” At his most cryptic, of course, Blake understands that “nature” is a category created by us, even as we are creatures bound up in its material reality: “Where man is not, nature is barren” (“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”).

Blake’s “Poison Tree,” for example, invokes an exotic species of plant to provide a metaphoric link between botanical poison and a psychological portrait of human destructiveness. Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden includes a note on the Boa Upas, a poisonous tree on the island of Java. This tree produces a poison so toxic that “the country round it, to the distance of ten or twelve miles from the tree, is entirely barren. Not a tree nor a shrub, nor even the least plant or grass is to be seen” (2: 247). Blake draws on this image of a natural object that kills everything for miles around it as the basis for his portrait of human “wrath.” While Blake’s figurative tree bears “an apple” like the tree in the Garden of Eden, its destructive power is closer to Darwin’s botanical description. The link is confirmed in “The Human Abstract,” where Blake lodges a metaphoric poison tree firmly in the human skull:

The Gods of the earth and sea
Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree,
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain. (21-24)

In this case, the naturalistic metaphor is more than figurative; it hints at a link between human and nonhuman nature. Blake’s powerful visual imagery could provide the occasion for an extended discussion of precisely such a link. As his printed and illuminated texts remind us, Blake’s imagination constantly saw natural objects in terms of their interconnectedness rather than their discrete separateness. His caterpillars and butterflies have human faces. His human figures often sprout roots and branches. His bird’s tails and wings echo flower stalks and vines, while his mythic figures often connect the human form with the botanic or the bestial. In Blake’s imaginative universe, to be in “Nature” is to be always fallen, but that does not prevent him from suggesting a powerful connectedness that unites all living things.

Blake’s “Tyger” also hints at a natural unity that transcends species variation. The lyric clearly implies that the same force (natural or supernatural?) lies behind the tiger and the lamb: “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”(20). Blake’s tiger is presented with a beauty that is fascinating (“burning bright”) in spite of, or perhaps because of, its destructiveness. Oliver Goldsmith’s Animate Nature (1795) offers a scientific naturalist’s tiger that is very similar to Blake’s. After describing the physical beauties of the creature, Goldsmith says, “Unhappily, however, this animal’s disposition, is as mischievous as its form is admirable, as if providence was willing to show the small value of beauty, by bestowing it on the most noxious of quadrupeds” (2: 135). Erasmus Darwin reports anatomical evidence for a comparable natural “problem” in the human species, a problem which Blake put to powerful use in “Infant Sorrow.” Darwin wrote “The repeated struggles of a foetus in the uterus must be owing to […] internal irritation: for the foetus can have no other inducements to move its limbs but the tedium and irksomeness of a continued posture” (Zoonomia 38). Blake’s poetic imagination turns an accurate biological observation of the struggling foetus into a commentary on human birth as a fall into consciousness: “My mother groaned! My father wept. / Into the dangerous world I leapt” (1-2). The newborn that has forced its way into the world, however, finds little improvement in its sensory situation and thus repeats its prenatal strife: “Struggling in my father’s hands: / Striving against my swaddling bands” (5-6). Even from our fallen state, however, Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” reminds us that if we upset natural balances, we do so at our own peril: as noted above: “The wanton Boy that kills the Fly / Shall feel the Spider’s enmity” (33-34). (A.N.)

Blake links:

Blake’s comments on the natural world

“The Sick Rose”

“Gendering Nature: Blake’s ‘Thel’ and the Eros of Butterflies”
(David Lashmet, University of Florida)

“Unfurling the Worm: Insecto-Theology in William Blake’s ‘Thel'”
(David Lashmet, University of Florida)

The Blake Archive (University of Virginia)


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