Discovering poetry - William Blake

There is no nicer way to be lulled towards sleep than reading and rereading verse…

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I haven’t read much poetry in my life but I want to read more. As I get older I appreciate the sparse words, so effortfully shaped that they amount to multiple times their number. Also the labour and pure artistry of the venture – no one embarks on poetry to get rich.

And this month, I am discovering there is no nicer way to be lulled to sleep than by reading and re-reading verse – to let the words wash over me, the layers of meaning start to filter through.

My first poet is William Blake, the 18th-century artist and visionary, famous for penning the lines of Jerusalem (“and did those feet…”). He was a Londoner and, as a child, saw angels sitting in a tree on Peckham Rye, where I walk my dog and I often think about him.

I am reading Songs of Innocence and of Experience in a beautiful pocket edition from the Tate, which reprints his original artworks for each poem alongside the text. A deeply sensitive man, Blake lamented the lost innocence of his childhood, and the cruelties of humanity, and the book is divided between these two states. Innocence is full of a benevolent God and happy communities. In The Echoing Green, we see children at play, and

Old John with white hair,

Does laugh away care,

Sitting under the oak,

Among the old folk,

They laugh at our play

And soon they all say,

Such such were the joys…

Sadly Experience shattered such bucolic joys for the sensitive Blake, and everywhere he saw humans in torment, often from within. This is from London.

I wander thro’ each charter’d street

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow

And marks in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe

In every cry of every Man

In every Infants cry of fear

In every voice; in every ban.

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear…

The book is subtitled “Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”, so I go to sleep hoping that Blake, as his life progressed, continued to know Innocence as well as Experience.

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Elizabeth Heathcote

Associate Editor, Psychologies