If William Blake is the father of contemporary American free verse, Emily Dickinson is surely its mother. But hold on, I hear you say, wasn’t that father Walt Whitman? Well, maybe he was the godfather. And I am aware of the distance in time and space between the father and the mother, and the fact that Dickinson may have never heard of, let alone read, Blake. Although he could have visited her as an emanation. Maybe that’s what she was writing about in “Wild nights.” So call it an immaculate conception, if you will.
After all, Blake worked with a biblical line, and Dickinson with a wide selection of meters, most commonly the ballad stanza of four lines in 4, 3, 4 and 3 stresses, a meter common in hymns as well. Blake has always been known as an eccentric and experimental poet. It is becoming clearer, as explorations of Dickinson’s manuscripts[i] proceed apace, that she was more experimental than eccentric.[ii] More on Dickinson later, but for now the focus is on Blake. And in my last post, I neglected perhaps one of the best sources on Blake’s relationship to the Bible. Peter Ackroyd, in his biography of Blake, says this, which is worth reading at length in relation to Blake’s prosody:
His early biographers do agree upon a single aspect of his childhood, however, since it is one that affected his entire life — his closest and most significant attachment [among books] was to the Bible. I would have been the staple reading of his family, the object of continual meditation and interpretation. It is hard to re-imagine a culture in which that book was the central and pre-eminent text, through which the world itself was to be understood, but the sectaries of mid-eighteenth-century England [Blake’s parents were Dissenters from the Church of England] still retained the old radical traditions of commentary and exegesis. … His poetry and painting are imbued with biblical motifs and images; the very curve and cadence of his sentences are derived from the Old Testament, while his passages of ritualistic description and denunciation come from the words of the great prophets that were heard in the house on Broad Street.[iii]
As I said in that last post, “The translators [of the Authorized Version] produced a liturgical text, a text intended to be heard by the congregation, to be read aloud by the priest or preacher or lector” — or, in Blake’s case, mother and father and siblings and, eventually, himself. As Ackroyd notes above, “the very curve and cadence of his sentences are derived from the Old Testament.” But here a word of caution is in order, a caution that I myself need to recall: it comes from David Norton, the editor of The new Cambridge paragraph Bible, discussing the work of the translators of the Authorized Version. “Poetic parts of the text” he says
have been given in verse lines. Here a word of caution is necessary: it is not always clear what parts of the original were poetry, nor how that poetry should be lineated; moreover, the King James Bible was made as a prose translation, and its words only sometimes work as verse. Nevertheless, the appearance of poetry, at the least, may act as a reminder that some parts were originally poetry. Sometimes it may do more, bringing out the structure of the poetry and more of the rhythm of the text.[iv]
But as you saw in that last post, Blake’s verse does have the lilt and stress of the biblical poetry exemplified in the selection from Nahum. In this post, I want to examine Continue Reading →