William Blake and Whitman

I know this class is focused on Whitman’s legacy on contemporary poetry, but I think it’s interesting to look into pre-Whitman poetry too, especially with the level of innovation he is generally credited with. He is regarded as so vital to the shaping of America and the philosophy behind it, but I see a lot of the same themes and poetic devices in the earlier poetry of William Blake. (1757-1827). I’m not sure If this influence was purely philosophical and indirect through reading Emerson, or if Whitman himself read Blake, either way I notice great similarities.

One could easily point out looking at a number of Blake’s poems that Whitman has a far more innovative style and free verse, and that Whitman is a vast leap from Blake’s rhyming traditional form poems. But in a work like “Visions of the Daughters of Albion,” we are exposed to a form and rhyme scheme quite similar at times to “Song of Myself.”

“With what sense is it the chicken shuns the
ravenous hawk?
With what sense does the tame pigeon measure out
the expanse?
With what sense does the bee form cells? Have not
The mouse and frog
Eyes and ears and a sense of touch? Yet are their
And their pursuits, as different as their forms and as
Their joys:
Ask the wild ass whit he refuses burdens: and the
Meek camel
Why he loves man: is it because of eye ear mouth or
Or breathing nostrils? No for these the wolf and
tyger have.
Ask the blind worm the secrets of the grave, and why
Her spires
Love to curl round the bones of death; and ask the
Rav’nous snake
Where she gets her poison: and the wing’d eagle why he
Loves the sun
And then tell me the thoughts of man, that have been
Hid of old.”

One cannot help but see resemblances to Song of Myself as well as other poems in Leaves of Grass. It is non rhyming which sets it apart from other poems of his. I think this passage functions in a similar way to some of Whitman’s catalogues where he writes a lot about animals aside humans, making them out to be just the same. Both of these poems preach of the beautiful truth found in nature. This truth was central in Whitman’s philosophy of America and democracy, and Blake’s poem goes very well with this idea as well. This above passage as well as the poem as a whole, reflect the democracy of nature, and in Blake’s case not being a member of a democracy, the idea of the current government system and therefore many aspects of society conflicting with nature and distancing humanity from it. The poem further comments on the absurd injustice of slavery and unfair rights for women in Blake’s time. Perhaps the strongest evidence is given in the very first lines of the poem.

“Enslav’d, the daughters of Albion weep a trembling
Upon their mountains; in the valleys. Sighs toward
For the soft soul of America, Oothoon wandered in

This first mention of America by the end of the poem serves the same representation of Whitman’s “old American lesson,” democracy and liberty are inscribed in nature, and these things are the essence of life and should be the essence of humanity.

A few more Blake lines,

“And trees. & birds. & beasts. & men. Behold their
eternal joy.
Arise you little glancing wings, and sing your infant
Arise and drink your bliss, for every thing that lives is

In many ways Blake seemed to have a sort of pre-transcendentalist philosophy, Im not exactly sure if the movement was influenced by him, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Blake was also a big influence on Allen Ginsburg, Bob Dylan, and many others.

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One Response to William Blake and Whitman

  1. Lindsey Stewart says:

    I completely agree with you. It is nigh impossible to miss the connections between Whitman and the Romantic poets, especially when it comes to their feelings on nature as a renewing and connective force.
    I am so glad you picked the poem “Visions of the Daughters of Albion” to talk about. Although I have studied this poem before, both on its own and as an influence on Ginsberg, I never put two and two together to realize how much Blake’s writing style sounds like Whitman. The use of questions and the language itself is unmistakable. And, of course, the influence of Blake on Whitman’s later devotees is of great importance.

    have you read “Expostulation and Reply” and “The Tables Turned” by Wordsworth? There is not as much similarity in his form or language, but I have always felt it is a subject that Whitman would have found interesting.

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