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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and teach the history of printing at other institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Friday, 6 July 2012

William Blake's The Fly - reposting and some further thoughts

This is a reposting of an earlier post, with some further thoughts.

I have been working on the British Library’s English Online project, researching for a hypertext contextualisation of English Literature between 1780 and 1900. Recently I was working on William Blake, whose work has been challenging me since I was at school. Some recent work based on Michael Phillips’ admirable examination of Blake’s writing processes (William Blake, The Creation of the Songs, British Library, 2000) has fixed one poem in my mind. It’s in the notebook that Blake used for thirty years, which is currently on display in the British Library exhibition Writing Britain until 25th September. Here is the poem:

The Fly

Little Fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

Nothing is there in the poem that doesn’t need to be there, and everything that needs to be there is there. As Michael Phillips writes, ‘Blake’s choice of language [is] as spare as anything written since the seventeenth century, apart, perhaps, from the Jubilate Agne of Christopher Smart.’ It was probably written after 1791, deduced from analysis of Blake’s handwriting. ‘Will Blake’, as he signed his name in some of his letters to his friend George Cumberland.

Following a reference to Blake’s engravings made in the previous decade I looked at Joseph Ritson’s Select Collection of English Songs (1782), for which Blake did eight engravings. The first section of the songs covers drinking songs, not what I would immediately associate with Blake. Song XIX goes as follows:

Busy, curious, thirsty Fly,
Drink with me, and drink as I;
Freely welcome to my cup,
Could’st thou sip, and sip it up.
Make the most of life you may,
Life is short, and wears away.

Both alike are mine and thine,
Hastening quick to their decline;
Thine’s a summer, mine no more,
Though repeated to threescore;
Threescore summers, when they’re gone,
Will appear as short as one.

It is marked “Made extempore by a Gentleman, occasion’d by a Fly drinking out of his Cup of Ale.”

Similar thoughts, occasioned by the visitation of a fly. And there is the couplet:
For I dance
And drink, and sing,
referring us back to the drinking song. Were dancing, drinking and singing ‘play’ for Blake? We know for certain that he sang, since there are references to him performing his songs at gatherings. The British Library also has a letter written by George Cumberland in 1815, in which he mentions visiting the Blakes, drinking tea with them, and Mrs Blake uttering seditious comments.

Looking at the poem again I notice that Blake has used the same metre as the earlier song, but has split the line in two, making it smaller and jerkier, like a fly and its movements. I’d also propose that the arrangement of five stanzas in four lines makes us look closer at the twice mentioned action of the hand brushing, the hand with five fingers, of which four do the brushing.

The third stage of writing the poem includes the lines:
The cut worm
Forgives the plow
And dies in peace
And so do thou
which were removed, as Blake writes a poem which is based on an act, an observation, questioning, reasoning and finally a hypothesis. It is an extraordinarily concentrated and dense poem, with no place for the statement of the rejected stanza, as the repetition of ‘if’ in the last two lines calls the reader back to the ‘If’ that begins the fourth stanza. What may look like a definitive statement in the last stanza is actually dependent on that ‘If’. The earlier drinking song is a statement, and the move from this closed pronouncement to the questioning of Blake’s version is an act of invitation to participate in the ‘thought’, the act of thinking, which is underlying subject of the poem. 

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