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Blake and Nietzsche

The following paper is by Aaron Tabor, a student studying English at MSU in Wichita Falls, Texas. I met Aaron through my son Chris online at the Internet Chess Club. So what do Blake and Nietzsche have in common? Blake a Christian and Nietzsche an Atheist, you may be surprised by Aaron's conclusions.

Blake and Nietzsche:
Some Affiliations

In this paper I would like to draw some affiliations between Blake and Nietzsche. As preposterous as it may sound to compare an avowed Christian with an avowed Atheist I ask the reader to bear with me. The parallels between these two great men are many, but I will restrict this paper to the similarities between �The Songs of Innocence and Experience� and �Of The Three Metamorphosis.� I will begin by examining the �contrary states of the human soul� in the �Songs� and then proceed into analogies implicit in Blake�s and Nietzsche�s conception of Innocence and Experience. This paper will attempt to show that Blake and Nietzsche are not as foreign to each other as many believe and that their poetic and philosophical vision carries with it some curious affiliations.

I will begin with the poem �The Chimney Sweeper� in the �Songs of Innocence.� This poem�s focus is primarily upon the character Tom Dacre who is but one of many children forced into a life of misery. One night during sleep Tom envisions an Angel setting all the boys free from black coffins:


Then down a green plain leaping laughing they run
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun
Then naked & white, all their bags left behind
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind
And the Angel told Tom, if he�d be a good boy,
He�d have God for his father & never want joy (15-20).

It is at this point that Tom awakens from his dream. The other boys are preparing for work by gathering their bags and brushes. �Tho� the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm./ So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.� (23-24) Tom is happy and warm because over night he had witnessed a powerful vision of the imagination. In and through this dream Tom has transcended the everyday tedium that the other boys are still subject to. Through a shift in perception Tom is able to see things in a new light, in a way foreign to the other boys and the rest of the world. It is this change of perception that is their �duty,� because if all the boys were to witness the same experience that Tom had, they would �need not fear harm.�

In �The Chimney Sweeper� of the �Songs of Experience� we are presented with a slightly different picture. The boy in this Song is with guardians, but this is of little significance being that the guardians are hardly guardians at all. They force the boy to the cruel conditions of a chimney sweep as they sit comfortably in Church. What is of primary importance is the difference in perception and mentality of both boys. In �The Chimney Sweeper� of �Innocence� the boy overcame the conditions thrust upon him through imagination and change of perception. In �The Chimney Sweeper� of �Experience� the boy uses deception as a tool rather than imagination.


Because I was happy under the heath,
And smil�d among the winters snow:
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
And because I am happy, & dance, & sing,
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King
Who make up a heaven of our misery (5-12).

This boy is not as happy as he lets on to be. My reasons for saying this come from two statements: �They clothed me in the clothes of death,� and �Who make up a heaven of our misery.� The former statement carries in it the voice of pessimism and experience. The clothes he is referring to are the clothes of a chimney sweep. He knows that the chances of survival in such a trade are incredibly low-the reason for the notes of woe. But still he smiles and dances and sings and pretends his guardians have done him no injury. The guardians, though, have caused him injury. Their attempt to make up a heaven out of misery, as the chimney sweep in �Innocence� had, is seen with sarcasm and sadness. Looking at the painting that accompanies this song we see a black figure walking through the snow. On closer inspection one can detect, not a frown, but rather a sullen and sad expression upon his lips. If it weren�t for this I would perhaps interpret this last line differently, but I believe the key to many of these poems lie in the paintings that accompany them. Needless to say, this painting stands in stark contrast to the happiness and freedom of the same song in �Innocence.�

In the �Nurse�s Song� of the �Songs of Innocence� I would like to focus on the Nurse instead of the children. Hearing the voices of children she says, �My heart is at rest within my breast/ And everything else is still� (3-4). A soothing stillness imposes itself upon the world as she sits peaceful and complacent beneath a tree. She is protective and loving toward the children and on seeing the sun setting calls them to come inside. The children, though, will not hear of it and plead to be allowed to play longer. The Nurse consents and �The little ones leaped & shouted & laugh�d/ And the hills ecchoed� (15-16) This poem is a simple illustration of innocence and a loving nurse looking after children.

The �Nurse�s Song� of the �Songs of Experience� is much different. Instead of a loving and protective Nurse we have just the opposite. �When the voices of children, are heard on the green/ And whispering are in the dale,/ The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,/ My face turns green and pale� (1-4). The first question that must be answered is the significance of green. The natural and immediate answer would be envy. The envious nurse wishing to live the life of innocence once again makes sense, but I believe there is more prevalent implication here. If you were to see a person with a green complexion, what comes to mind? Nausea. This Nurse is not only envious of those days of innocence and playfulness, but is nauseous that she can no longer attain them, that they are beyond her reach. So with a kind of modern catharsis consisting of nausea and envy instead of fear and pity she says, �Your spring & your day, are wasted in play/ And your winter and night in disguise� (7-8). In a vindictive tone she tells them that the time will come when they will feel as she does, and perhaps she even takes a kind of comfort in this vengeful thought.

�Spring� is essentially a song of affirmation. A little boy and little girl play outside with lambs. �Little Lamb/ Here I am, / Come and lick/ My white neck. / Let me pull/ Your soft Wool. Let me kiss/ Your soft face. / Merrily Merrily we welcome in the Year.� (19-27) This last line cannot be interpreted as merely welcoming in the New Year because this poem takes place in Spring and the New Year begins in Winter. What I believe Blake is implying, rather, is renewal and regeneration as embodied by the two children. The mother is the year passing and the children are the years to come. This idea also coincides with Blake�s other poem entitled �Spring�: �Come o�er the eastern hills, and let our winds/ Kiss thy perfumed garments.� (9-10) The Spring approaches over eastern hills-the east a sign of new beginning and dawn. This new beginning consists of the children who will create it.

�The Tyger� is one of my favorite poems in part because it rejects all interpretation. Despite this fact I will make my feeble attempt. �The Tyger� is a poem of defiance. The reader is hammered with question after question expressed with startling strength:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forest of the night; What immortal hand or eye, Could frame they fearful symmetry? In what distant deeps or skies, Burnt the fire of thine eyes? On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand, dare seize the fire? (1-8)

These questions are questions asked by a rebellious spirit. The Tyger is asking, �How great do you dare become? How close do you dare to come? Do you dare frame audacity?� All the while laughing at man�s weakness and indecision to answer such questions. Uncertainty is Man�s lot, instinct and confidence the Tyger�s. Many revolutionary parties have taken this poem as their own simply because of the pure insurgency in its voice. This poem not only defies man in general but also the reader in particular. The Tyger asks him questions that the reader cannot answer; the question mark grows larger and larger in our head as we desperately seek a solution.

Thus far in the paper I have concerned myself primarily with the �contraries of the human soul� as expressed in the �Songs of Innocence and of Experience.� The time has now come for me to show the significance of these contraries and how they relate to life. Let me begin by saying that Innocence and Experience are not so much contrary states of being as they are transformations that we all undergo. I believe that Blake went through the same transformation and sought to express this metamorphoses in the �Songs of Innocence and of Experience.� As shown in the examples above the distinctions between the poems of each �Song� are distinctions of perspective. �The Chimney Sweeper� of the �Songs of Innocence� changed his point of view, and thus necessarily his life, in order to transcend his situation. Whereas �The Chimney Sweeper� of �Experience� decided to put on a mask of happiness and contentment when in fact he was simply bearing the burden of his life of misery. The Nurse in �Innocence� protects and loves the children-the Nurse of �Experience� is envious and nauseous toward the life they lead. The children of Spring affirm life-the Tyger rebels against it. Different perspectives toward life and mankind are all that separate the Innocent from the Experienced.

The question remains: �What is the relevance of this transformation from Innocence to Experience, and can this transformation be reversed? Can the experienced once again become innocent?� Instead of referring to religion and the Bible as most all critics of Blake have done, I would like to instead refer to one of the greatest passages in history: �Of the Three Metamorphoses� by Nietzsche, which deserves to be quoted in full:

Of three metamorphoses of the spirit I tell you: how the spirit becomes a camel; and the camel, a lion; and the lion, finally, a child.
There is much that is difficult for the spirit, the strong reverent spirit that would bear much: but the difficult and the most difficult are what its strength demands. What is difficult? asks the spirit that would bear much, and kneels down like a camel wanting to be well loaded. What is most difficult, O heroes, asks the spirit that would bear much, that I may take it upon myself and exult in my strength? Is it not humbling oneself to wound one�s haughtiness? Letting ones folly shine to mock one�s wisdom? Or is it this: loving those who despise us and offering a hand to the ghost that would frighten us? Or is it this: being sick and sending home the comforters and making friends with the deaf, who never hear what you want? Or is it this: stepping into filthy waters when they are the waters of truth, and not repulsing cold frogs and hot they are the waters of truth, and not repulsing cold frogs and hot toads?
All these most difficult things the spirit that would bear much takes upon itself: like the camel that, burdened, speeds into the desert, thus the spirits speeds into the desert. In the loneliest desert, however, the second metamorphosis occurs: here the spirit becomes a lion who would conquer his freedom and be master in his own desert. Here he seeks out his last master: he wants to fight him and his last god; for ultimate victory he wants to fight with the great dragon. Who is the great dragon whom the spirit will no longer call lord and god? �Thou shalt� is the name of the great dragon. But the spirit of the lion says, �I will.� �Thou shalt� lies in his way, sparkling like gold, like an animal covered with scales; and on every scale shines a golden �thou shalt.�
But say, my brothers, what can the child do that even the lion could not do? Why must the preying lion still become a child? The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred �Yes.� For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred �Yes� is needed: the spirit now wills his own will, and he who had been lost to the world now conquers his own world. (Nietzsche, 25-27)


Instead of beginning with Innocence, as Blake had done, Nietzsche reverses the process and begins with Experience as embodied in the Camel and Lion. Let�s look closer at the lines concerning the Camel. The question is asked �What is difficult?...being sick and sending home the comforters and making friends with the deaf, who never hear what you want?� This question brings to mind the chimney sweeper of �Experience.� He, too, comforted his guardians by smiling and dancing and singing, pretending they had done him not injury. The child bore the weight of this injury on his small shoulders. He made friends with the guardians that do not listen to his notes of woe or want of a better life. Still he carries on with his task as a chimney sweeper and with the burden of his life of misery. �What is difficult?...stepping into filthy waters when they are the waters of truth, and not repulsing cold frogs and hot toads?� Could this not be the very situation of our dear Nurse of �Experience?� She, too, stepped into the filthy waters of memory, of the days of innocence and happiness, of the waters of truth. These waters are murky and unclear, almost beyond recall. Memory is sometimes our greatest burden and the Nurse�s case is no exception. She could not resist to repulse and feel sick toward �cold frogs and hot toads,� those green faces so similar to hers. As stated earlier, this swamp of memory brings about a modern catharsis; she is both envious of the waters of truth and innocence, but also feels sick and repulsed by them. The Nurse and Chimney Sweeper of �Experience� are both beasts of burden, camels in the desert unable to find their way home.

The affiliation between the Lion and the �Tyger� are apparent, but allow me to make a couple of comments. Both are animals of defiance and rebellion. The Lion rejects the �thou shalt� and commandments of the world just as the �Tyger� rejects the man who imposes them. Both are creatures of great will and determination. Both are creatures that conquer their own freedom and become masters in their own desert or forest. The weight of burden is released by the roar of freedom and defiance.

The last metamorphosis is the most important. The game of rebellion is preceded by the game of creation: �the spirit now wills his own will, and he who had been lost to the world now conquers his own world.� Tom Dacre was also lost to the world, but through will and what Blake calls �Poetic Genius� he conquered his own world. The power of imagination transformed his perspective; no longer was he cold with rejection of the world and his cruel task, but warm and happy with the act of creation. The child does away with games of burden and rebellion and utilizes the poetic faculty of his mind. This is the �duty� of all poets and artificers-to create the dawning day of one�s imagination. The same type mentality is also seen in the children of �Spring� who �welcome in the year,� for they are a �new beginning� and a �first movement.� They are �innocence� and a �sacred �Yes.�� These children embody the �Poetic Genius� capable of affirming the world of their creation.

Put aside for the moment that Blake was a professed Christian and Nietzsche a professed atheist. Once we remove these barriers we see that both men had similar ideas of innocence and experience and of the gradual transformation that takes place in all of us. The significance of the metamorphoses of perspective, from Innocence to Experience or vice versa, is that change is essential to life. Both Nietzsche and Blake depict sickness and decay in the idle. Both men rejected the still-born society they were born into, but through acts of poetic and philosophical creation they were able to affirm their lives and their world. Nietzsche did so through the �eternal recurrence� and Blake did so through the �Poetic and Prophetic Genius� that he expressed. These men realized that through change of perspective and expression of their vision the �sacred �Yes�� toward life is triumphant.


 

Comments

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Interesting...though the initial notion, the Blake-Christian, Nietzsche-Atheist appears to needs some refining and elaboration. First of all, if this difference really means something, then the thrust of the paper should be all the more interesting given the apparent similarity on matters of Biblical relevance (e.g. the experienced once again becoming innocent, a la John 3 'enter into my mother's womb, and be born again...'). The thrust of the paper succeeds in some sense in showing a kind of 'spiritual' affinity, but then leaves off the interesting part--a reevaluation of the initial dogmatic statement (i.e. Nietzsche, the 'avowed' and 'professed' atheist; Blake, the 'avowed' and 'professed' Christian.)

In the first place, I don't think Nietzsche was an 'avowed' or 'professed' anything--his work is so undogmatic that it even strays far into self-conscious contradition. (cf. Beyond Good and Evil: 'I am philosophical dynamite, I contradict as no one has ever contradicted, and yet I am the opposite of a negative spirit,' etc.) Still, no one will argue with the thesis that Nietzsche was an atheist. The point is that one must elaborate on how wonderfully complex an atheist he actually was.

This comment can't become an essay, so suffice it to raise a few points of suggestion. Nietzsche clearly thought ill of Christianity, including the New Testament as a cultural artifact (on the Old Testament, however, he showers unreserved praise; another strange detail when one considers that in the Geneaology of Morals Christianity appears as something like a Jewish plot).

Leaving aside, however, Zarathustra's similarity to Jesus (much more than any historical or mythic Zarathustra), and Nietzsche's praise of Jesus in the Anti-Christ, given his 'professed' disgust for Christianity and its products (among which are, according to Nietzsche, modern liberal democracy, 'leveling' equality, and some other things most of us like) it seems odd that Nietzsche is constanly running in the flow of interesting Christian doctrines, including ones not aritculated by Jesus. Compare, for example, his dedication to 'yes-saying' and continuous affrimation with Paul's discourse on agape in 1 Corinthians 13. The idea of revenge, over and over applied to Christianity (see the stuff on John the Evangelist/Revelator in BGE, and of course the slave morality in GoM), is perhaps consciously put in very Christian terms. As for very Jesus-like virtues, see the concepts of 'overflowing' and 'solitude' in Niet. and chapters 4 and 5 of Matthew. This is getting long.

One last thing to remeber in the characters in Niet.'s philosophical epic, if you will. As in Plato ('the greatest light of antiquity' (?)-Niet.), the characters in the drama do not simply represent Plato's view and various other erroneous views; Socrates is not always Plato's mouthpiece. In Thus Spake Zarathustra we are introduced to Zarathustra, who is clearly not Niet., nor directly represents him--this comes out in the initial part of Zara., where Zarathutra's hermit life is discussed, as is his coming down from the mountain. The superman is also presented (only prophetically, if you will); again the superman, overman, or surpassing man (pick your translation) is distinct from Niet. and Zarathustra. Zarathustra is a forerunner? Who then is Nietzsche? Perhaps, he is something like Zarathustra, but also something like the madman, for whom the death of God is still a source of distress. Nietzsche sems to appear as this madman man in other books, in particular BG&E.

In today's petty sacred-secular political dipsutes, the terriory seems divided between those who want to save God and those who would kill him (for what, and why, I have no idea). Zarathustra, wiser than both, understands that God has ceased to exist in the only place that he ever could have lived--in the cultural and spiritual existence of earthly humans. Zarathustra looks to the future, to the great possibilities of this reality. Conversely, Nietzsche, at least part of him, "untimely" man that he is, is driven mad (figuratively, at this point) by the horrible disaster that also accompanies the death of God. Hence the glimpses of his father, a minister: "He who cannot find greatness in God will find it nowhere."

"Nietzsche clearly thought ill of Christianity, including the New Testament as a cultural artifact (on the Old Testament, however, he showers unreserved praise; another strange detail when one considers that in the Geneaology of Morals Christianity appears as something like a Jewish plot)."

"The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spake to them; and whether they did not think at the time, that they would be misunderstood, & so be the cause of imposition... 'and we so loved our God. that we cursed in his name all the deities of surrounding nations, and asserted that they had rebelled; from these opinions the vulgar came to think that all nations would at last be subject to the jews.' 'This' said he, 'like all firm perswasions, is come to pass; for all nations believe the jews' code and worship the jews' god, and what greater subjection can be?'"

-- William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

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dende makes an interesting point, the rich nature of Nietzsche's atheism; which then he forgets at his final conclusion, Zarathustra has reveals god has died in many waysOne of them is far more fierce than just washing himself of the cultural world, he must die for the redemption of nature. "One is necesary, one is the piece of fatality, one belongs to the everything, one is part of the everything; there is nothing that can judge meassure, compare or sentence our existence, because that would mean judging, meassuring, compairing or sentencing the totality. That nobody is mantained accountable any more, that the ways of being can not be explored to a prime cause, that the world does not form an entity, both as a sensorium and as an spirit - this is the only great liberation, with this innocence has been restored. The concept of god was until now the greatest objection, we denie god, we denie responsability before god, only with this we redeem the world." The Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche is not simply a man scared of his father. He is dynamite. He has discovered that we need to blow up the concept of god in order to redeem ourselves out of nihilism. Remeber Nietzsche claims he would not believe in god even if it was shown to him that it exists. Value is no longer dictated from far beyond existence from the non existent meditation of the priest, it is returned to nature. Great men shall no longer aspire to god but to the will of power, which must not be confused with the petty greedy intentions and means of most politicians, but identified with the passion and resourcefulness of men, in particular intelectuals.

(any discrepance on the citation correctness, is mainly due to my translation, please consult published ones for further reassurance)

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