Blake And The Arbitrary Nature Of Language

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William Blake both embodies yet moves beyond the Romantic archetype of innovation. More than any of his contemporaries he attempted to reconstitute, or more accurately remythologise, an entire Western tradition of poetic, theological and philosophical writing. In terms of the functional status of poetry he sought to break down the stylistic and interpretive distinctions between these three discourses. For Blake the poem was the natural medium within which man would once again unify the conditions of mystical self-awareness, natural justice and external, undimmed truth that had been so cruelly thrown apart by centuries of 'civilised' belief, behaviour and convention. He believed that the functional and referential conditions of all discourses, but particularly poetry, were responsible for distorting and effectively determining man's vision of himself and the world, and in his own poetic writing he sought to draw attention to these falsifications by juxtaposing familiar codes, referential patterns and stylistic conventions in a way that can best be described as a form of linguistic pre-Surrealism—familiar linguistic integers and structures were repositioned in an unprecedented and, according to a number of commentators, inaccessible manner.

His early, twin collections Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789-1805) are often regarded as his most accessible work, but the intrinsic peculiarities of these poems hold the key to his broader visionary enterprise. The majority of these lyrics are comprised of short stanzas, often using trisyllabic feet and moving away from the spoken iambic pattern to a form of musical 'sung' metre. As such he draws upon a familiar cultural code—in this case the popular type of poem/hymn published and distributed by dissenting preachers, poets and hymn writers of the eighteenth century for the religious and moral instruction of children. In a similar way to Wordsworth's use of the rural ballad Blake causes a deliberate conflict between formal/cultural expectation and realisation. But the situations of the utterance created by the Songs are far more perverse and intangible than those of the Ballads. Blake creates a continuous sense of disorientation for the reader, not as a consequence of a particularly obscure programme of syntactic or metrical innovation but by causing continuous and unremitting tension between lexical and sentence semantics and the situation of the utterance. Consider the Introduction to Songs of Innocence:

Piping down the valleys wild Piping songs of pleasant glee On a cloud I saw a child. And he laughing said to me. Pipe a song about a Lamb; So I piped with merry chear, Piper pipe that song again— So I piped, he wept to hear.

Drop thy pipe thy happy pipe Sing thy songs of happy chear, So I sung the same again While he wept with joy to hear Piper sit thee down and write In a book that all may read— So he vanish'd from my sight. And I pluck'd a hollow reed.

And I made a rural pen, And I stain'd the water clear, And I wrote my happy songs Every child may joy to hear.

Superficially, this lyric creates an impression of syntactic and metrical simplicity. Each quatrain consists of regular seven-syllable lines, largely trochaic (indicating song rather than speech) but ending with an emphatic stress reversal for each rhyme word (see the boy's song to Mariana in Measure for Measure for a precedent). Each line achieves a large degree of discreteness by the placing of the main verb at a stress position, but the relation between such localised effects and the broader cohesive pattern is deliberately disruptive. The lexical and sentence semantics of each individual line are transparent and undemanding. The speaker sets the scene, the child issues orders and the speaker responds accordingly, but when we examine the interactive relation between these units of cohesion the effect is disorientating. The line/ phrase 'On a cloud I saw a child' involves straightforward semantic relations—the speaker 'I' sees the 'child' on the 'cloud'. But we are uncertain whether the speaker also shares this locative position (perhaps they are both on the cloud) or whether the speaker views the child from the ground. The confusion becomes even more intriguing when we look back to the opening line, 'Piping down the valleys wild'. Does this refer to the sound of the pipe in the valleys or to the movement of the piper (perhaps on a cloud)? The child speaks to him so we must either assume that they share the cloud or that the child's voice carries from the sky— an effect consistent with his unreal, fantastic status. The confusing relation between the active verbal movement which creates the narrative and cohesive structure of the poem and its deictic features becomes even more pronounced in the two closing stanzas. The piper/speaker sits down on the ground to 'pluck' a 'reed' and 'stain the water'. Has he descended from the cloud and does the intimacy and immediacy of his exchange with the child mean that they are now both on the ground?

Throughout the poem the curious tension between the localised semantic simplicity and the less stable cohesive and narrative pattern creates, for the reader, a continuous sense of uncertainty. The final two lines,

And I wrote my happy songs

Every child may joy to hear exhibit an enclosed and unambiguous sense of transparency and completeness. But interpreted in relation to the child's order to write 'in a book that all may read' and the speaker's description of how he 'stained the water clear', these lines become a component of an unresolvable paradox. Writing on water is as impermanent as speech; no-one will later be able to 'read' these songs nor are they records of songs that the conditional/'future' child 'may joy to hear'. Localised semantics depend equally upon the reader's awareness of internal syntactic relations and our broader sense of the situation of the utterance—the latter provided either by an actual context or implied context provided by deictic features (see Traugott and Pratt, 1980, 187-8). In Blake's poem any sense of an implied context is continuously disrupted by the shifting relation between the spatial and active linguistic indicators, and as a consequence the sum of the localised, transparent parts creates a disorientating, incoherent whole. Blake's apparent wish to juxtapose these two elements of localised order and referential disorder depends largely upon his use of the enclosed lyric pattern of the verse form. The regular pattern of short lines and stanzaic repetition provides a relatively stable axis between the two elements, and we should note that the Augustan programme of deploying the double pattern as a supplement to the ordering features of syntax and contextual reference is clearly and deliberately disrupted. Here metrical order is juxtaposed with syntactic and referential disruption. Clearly this lyric fits into the generic-stylistic category of texts in which the 'baring of the device', the self-conscious interplay between the referential and the poetic function is their most prominent feature (see discussion of Herbert, pp. 52-5), and it sets the tone for the rest of the collection. In each of the songs we remain uncertain of the true situation of the utterance: the more immediate localising functions of the deictics will allow us to position the speaker as child or adult; the frame of reference might shift from the immediate condition of orphans, chimney sweepers or little black boys to the more abstract philosophical significances of rose trees, tigers or lambs.

Blake's songs differ from Wordsworth's ballads in the sense that they constantly deny the reader any certain encounter with a specific and persistent cultural or poetic code. Religious or mythological patterns of imagery and symbolism might be foregrounded in one poem and in the next be replaced by concrete references to child exploitation or the sordid condition of the London streets. In short any attempt to reconstruct a particular speaker from the linguistic constituents of the text and consequently to balance textual features against implied context is consistently subverted. The first serious attempt to deal with this problem of textual-contextual coordination is in Robert F.Gleckner's 'Point of View and Context in Blake's Songs' (1957). Gleckner advises the reader to read the sequence as a textual whole, carrying themes and contextual references from one poem to the next rather as we do with the individual sentences that make up a prose sequence: 'since each state is made up of many poems, the other poems in that must be consulted to grasp the full significance of any one poem' (92). This might be a valid formula were it not for the fact that each separate poem causes internal disturbances of point of view and context. Consider 'London' from Songs of Experience:

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 Infants cry of fear, In every voice: in every ban, The mind-forg'd manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry Every blackning Church appalls, And the hapless Soldiers sigh, Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro' midnight streets I hear How the youthful Harlots curse Blasts the new-born Infants tear And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

The point to note in this poem is the way in which the verbal shifts between seeing and hearing cause a correspondent uncertainty about the perceptual and the expressive stability of the experiencer. In grammatical terms the experiencer is the role of the animate being inwardly affected by an event or characterised by a state (see Traugott and Pratt, 193) and in this poem the speaker is very much the experiencer. In the first stanza the verbal emphasis is visual—he 'marks' the 'marks', or, roughly translated, he visually apprehends evidence of weakness and woe. In the second stanza the visual is superseded by the auditory verbal function—he 'hears' 'crys' and 'voices'. In the third and fourth stanzas any stability between these two grammatical and perceptual conditions is subverted. How can the speaker 'hear' how every church is appalled by the chimney sweeper's cry ('appalls' in any event involves both its modern figurative usage and its original spatial designation of draping with a pall)? And although a sigh can be heard, it is curious to find that its visual metaphoric transformation into blood on palace walls is still governed by the auditory verb phrase. Even more confusing is the harlot's curse which is 'heard' to 'blast' the 'infant's tear' and 'blight' ('with plagues') 'the marriage hearse'.

Scholars and critics have toiled for decades over the strange syntactic and semantic relationships between the deictic features of this poem. For example 'mark' could simply mean appearance or it could invite comparison with the biblical 'mark' upon the victimised and downtrodden inhabitants of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 9: 4, a passage with which Blake was almost obsessively familiar). 'Charter'd' could mean both the 'charter'd rights of Englishmen', a much used counterblast to the repressive regime of Pitt, and also refer to the urban topography, including the Thames, as literally 'charted', owned, confined, mapped out, designated for commercial use. 'Ban' could mean an element of contemporary legislation or it could refer to the agreed prohibitions of the marriage announcement. In each ambiguous semantic instance the speaker shifts us between the immediate and specific—people or events that he might encounter on the streets—and the broader existential condition of humanity. This effect is supplemented by the speaker's repetitive use of 'every'. Its first usage links it with the condition of the utterance, 'every face I meet', but its attachment to 'every Man', 'every Infant', 'every voice', 'every blackning Church' sets up a tension between a universal, generalised frame of reference and the equally prominent definite article, 'the Chimney-sweepers', 'the soldiers', 'the youthful Harlots', 'the new-born Infants', 'the Marriage Hearse'. Are these individual instances of the speaker's reported experience or is 'the' substituted for the generic predeterminer 'all' or 'every'? These uncertain lexical semantics and the spatial and auditory shifts between verbs and objects focus our attention upon the condition of the experiencer and the nature of the speech act. The present tense relations between the first person pronoun and verb, 'I wander', 'I meet', 'I hear' create the impression of immediacy and particularity, yet the semantic and syntactic excursions discussed above isolate the text as a self-determined synthesis of largely disparate linguistic and referential patterns.

The anchor point for any sense of interpretive stability is provided by the double pattern. At the junction between the closing and opening lines of stanzas 2 and 3 we encounter an example of enjambment that John Hollander terms the contre-rejet, which, roughly summarised, creates two separate deep structures within the same syntactic unit. The verb phrase 'I hear' is vital both for the syntactic structure of stanza 2 and for that of stanza 3 (punctuation differs from edition to edition, but in the original the full stop is absent). Technically this is an instance of grammatical deviation, but within the specific context of metrical-syntactic structure it creates a double effect of parataxis (structure is determined by the impassioned nature of the speech act) and textual foregrounding (the overlaying of two syntactic patterns upon a single syntagmatic sequence is neatly accommodated by its division between two stanzas). But it is more than simply a technical device, because it draws the reader's attention to a more complex thematic shift from the largely metonymic pattern of the first two stanzas to the extravagantly metaphoric elaborations of the third and fourth. In the former the dominant trope of 'mind forg'd manacles' is cautiously preempted by the accumulation of physical and figurative semantics denoting imprisonment and subservience—particularly 'charter'd' and 'mark'. The experiencer and his language are tied closely to the immediate circumstances of the speech act. But in the second half of the poem the imagined inhabitants of the streets become more the constituents of a detached textual field, in which the surreal spatio-acoustic relation between objects and actions unsettles any particular semantic chain.

It is significant that this vast thematic and contextual shift should be signalled, perhaps initiated, by a point of interaction between speech act and textuality, because the only feature of all of the songs that can be said to be persistent and predictable is their enclosure within a regular metrical-stanzaic pattern. It is almost as though Blake in the Songs set himself a task similar to Herbert's in The Temple: both recognised that the arbitrary conventions of language are capable of inhibiting and distorting the mediation of truth, and both, perhaps perversely, chose the most self-consciously arbitrary linguistic medium to explore such issues. But there the resemblance ends. Blake in many of his earlier poems displays an unease with the inherited langue of metrical structures. In the blank verse pieces of Poetical Sketches (1783) he experiments regularly with the tension between verse design (text) and verse instance (speech pattern) in a manner that recalls Milton and predates Tintern Abbey' by almost two decades. The sense of self-referential unease, evident both in the Sketches and the Songs, eventually resulted in the only real textual manifestation of the pre-Romantic theories of primitivism (see Abrams, 78-84 and Bradford, 1992, 103-32) and during the 1790s Blake began to write in a form of early free verse. His programme was based upon the rejection of any predetermined structural tension between the line and syntax. An early example of this practice can be found in 'The Argument' to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-3). A roughly iambic sequence is maintained but the length of each line is determined only by the unpredictable occurrence of major rhetorical or syntactic pauses (see also The First Book of Urizen, The Book of Ahania and The Song of Los). In his later long poems such as Milton and Jerusalem, Blake abandoned all concessions to metrical regularity and the only feature which distinguishes these texts from prose is their use of the unmetrical line. He states his case in the introduction to Jerusalem.

When this Verse was first dictated to me, I considered a Monotonous Cadence, like that used by Milton and Shakespeare and all writers of English Blank Verse, derived from the Modern bondage of Rhyming, to be a necessary and indispensible part of Verse. But I soon found that in the mouth of a true Orator such monotony was not only awkward, but as much a bondage as rhyme itself. I therefore have produced a variety in every line both of cadences and of number of syllables. Every word and every letter is studied and put into its fit place; the terrific numbers are reserved for the terrific parts, the mild and gentle for the mild and gentle parts, and the prosaic for inferior parts; all are necessary to each other. Poetry Fetter'd Fetters the Human Race (Blake, 1966, 434).

He raises issues here that lie at the heart of the innovative programme of Romanticism and which would be returned to by the modernists. Metre even in its freer, unrhymed forms is unnatural, and thus we encounter an uncomfortable paradox, largely ignored by the theorists of primitivism and effectively marginalised by the Romantics. If, as was widely believed, the rhythmic structure of poetry was a palpable token of its link with pre-linguistic experience, how could a metrical style be devised which did not confine itself within the conventional patterns of form yet which exhibited structural and signifying functions which differed from other linguistic discourses? Wordsworth and the other major poets of the period submitted to convention. Wordsworth: 'the tendency of metre is to divest language in a certain degree of its indistinct perception perpetually renewed of language closely resembling that of real life, and yet, in the circumstances of metre, differing from it so widely'. There were other contemporary attempts to break the 'fetters' of conventional metrical forms, the best known being Coleridge's method of 'counting in each line the accents, not the syllables' in Christabel, but there remains a strange inconsistency between their shared objective of revolutionising the functional purpose of poetry and their maintenance of an eclectic conservatism in matters of poetic form. With the exception of Blake's later poetry, the Romantics engage in an uncomfortable and largely indecisive struggle with precedent.

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