Get ready to go on a Magical Mystery Tour—because that's what William Blake's "Auguries of Innocence" provides. But don't worry—it's strictly drug-free. (Blake was pretty straight-edge, though you might not have thought so, based on the poem.)
Blake died in 1827, but "Auguries of Innocence" wasn't published until 1863, when it dropped on the world with all the force of a posthumously released Michael Jackson album. Well, okay, maybe it wasn't quite that popular—but people were getting more interested in Blake at the time. During his own life, Blake had been a starving artist, thanks to the fact that everyone thought he was a kook. He had to struggle on the fringes of society—like one of those artists in public parks who sells cool, far-out, spray-painted pictures of unicorns flying in outer space. But by the time the middle of the nineteenth century rolled around, people were ready to accept all Blake's quirks and mystical visions. His poetry was the kind of thing that cool, elite poets and artists were into—like those people who get way into an indie band before anybody else has heard of it.
Blake's had a big influence on hippies and rebellious rock stars and poets like Jim Morrison and Allen Ginsberg. But Blake wasn't puffing the magic dragon or trippin' on goofball pills or whatever it is that those guys were doing. His visions were beamed into his head naturally—it was just the way he was. But Blake wasn't, like everyone in his time assumed, "insane." He just saw things differently, and "Auguries of Innocence" explains how, especially in its famous opening lines: "To see a world in a grain of sand / And heaven in a wildflower / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour."
In a way, this is a key to the rest of Blake's poems—even the most difficult, like his Prophetic Books (they make Ulysses look like a cake-walk). It's a good place to start. Blake believed that the tiniest part of reality—like a grain of sand or a wildflower—could, if viewed with imagination and energy, suddenly reveal profound truths about the entire cosmos. (It's sort of similar to an idea from a recent book by the Dalai Lama, entitled The Universe in a Single Atom.) So "Auguries" lets people get used to Blake's method, which he uses in all of his other works: his ability to see huge metaphors and visions hidden in the little, everyday things.
Get your magnifying glasses ready, because we're about to "see a world in a grain of sand." [Several hours later…] Yeah, we recognize staring at these grains of sand is getting sort of boring. Maybe we should turn on one of those Real Housewives shows or something…
But no—we need to give you a reason to read "Auguries of Innocence," which talks about seeing "a world in a grain of sand." That magnifying glass thing was just a diversion. Apparently, you can't really do this with a magnifying glass. You need to use what exasperated parents once called "the imagination"—specifically, when they would yell at us for spending too much time playing Donkey Kong Country for Super-Nintendo (this was back in archaic Stonehenge times).
You see, when William Blake wrote this poem, he was trying to get people to see reality in a new way. "Kind of like Google Glass?" you ask. Perhaps. But Blake really wanted people to see the world not just as a bunch of stupid trees and houses and cars and people all standing or driving around or walking or being boring. In Blake's view, reality isn't just boring and stupid.
To paraphrase a poet (okay—actually, Insane Clown Posse), there's magic up in this world. Blake agrees. He thinks a little thing like a leaf falling from a tree, or a robin in a cage, or a guy wielding a baseball bat and screaming at a bunch kids to get off his lawn—all of these things can reveal great truths and bits of wisdom. You just have to change your perspective, use a little imagination, see how things can be symbols for other things. That's what poetry's all about, right?
Even if you're not enticed by Blake's poetic and mystical revelations, you should at least stick around for the comically strange images. For instance, Blake says in one part of the poem that a man who annoys an ox will not ever be loved by a woman—which is meant to be a metaphor, but it's also just weird fun. (Though we're also kind of worried—we made an ox, like, really mad this one time. Will we never find love?)
The Blake Society
This is the main center for all things Blake. Check it out.
The Poetry Foundation on Blake
The poetry foundation is an excellent resource for other poems by Blake—giving a decent sampling of some of the most popular.
The William Blake Archive
This excellent resource has all of Blake's poems and a ton of his famous paintings and engravings.
Roy Macready Reads "Auguries of Innocence"
Here's a solid recording of Blake's great poem, read by an actor.
Ted Hughes reads "Auguries of Innocence"
This is another version, read by Ted Hughes, a famous British poet (who was also famous for being married to Sylvia Plath).
Patti Smith Performs "Auguries of Innocence"
This isn't the same as Blake's poem—but it's inspired by it and it has the same title. Patti Smith—"The Godmother of Punk"—was a big fan of Blake, along with so many other rockers.
"Every Grain of Sand" (Written by Bob Dylan) Performed by Emmylou Harris
This is one of Dylan's most religious songs—and it's deeply influenced by Blake, and "Auguries" in particular. Emmylou Harris delivers a version that's a little easier on the ears than the original.
A Portrait of Blake by Thomas Phillips (1807)
This was painted from Blake in life. It brings out his intensity, and gives the impression of a mind that's focused, but is also looking at something beyond the everyday world.
The Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun (A Painting by Blake)
This painting got a lot of play in the movie Red Dragon (and in the book it's based on), where it's tattooed on the back of a serial killer (who also destroys the original painting at one point in the story). It's a good example of Blake's spiritual art, since it's based off a scene from the Biblical Book of Revelation.
This Blake painting shows the figure "Albion" (an old term for Britain), who represents Blake's idea of the Cosmic Human or "Human Form Divine"—the God who appears in "realms of day" at the end of "Auguries."
A Biography from The Poetry Foundation
This gives a very in-depth look at Blake's life.
T.S. Eliot's Essay on Blake
Eliot's essay helped people take Blake seriously instead of just dismissing him as a madman. But Eliot's also a little critical—he doesn't like it that Blake invented his own mythology and wishes he'd used the orthodox Christian view of reality like Dante did.
W.B. Yeats' Essay "William Blake and the Imagination"
Yeats adored Blake, and his essay is a lot more praiseful than Eliot's. He hails Blake for preaching a mystical "religion of art."
William Blake by G.K. Chesterton
Although the famous British author G.K. Chesterton had his own biases and quirks, he clearly loved Blake. He gives his individual and idiosyncratic take on the poet, which is definitely worth a look.
William Blake: A Critical Essay by Algernon Charles Swinburne
Swinburne was a major poet in his day, though he's not very frequently discussed anymore. But he was also an important literary critic. This book might be a little out-of-date, but hey—it's free. Swinburne's Blake book was totally a pioneering work in its day, since most people had just dismissed Blake as a lunatic during his lifetime.