At first, "Auguries" can sound kind of like a little kid reciting some sort of proverb in an old-timey schoolroom. They have an "Early to bed, early to rise / Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise" feel to them—though Blake was way different as a person from pearl-of-wisdom-dropping folks like Ben Franklin. "A truth that's told with bad intent / Beats all the lies you can invent" (53-54) is a decent example of this kind of Blakean wisdom.
What initially sounds like a schoolish, proverbial vibe, though, can start to feel more like a magical incantation, going along to a steady, insistent drum beat. It begins to seem more ancient and weird—something they might recite in between songs at a Spinal Tap concert. A good example comes close to the end of the poem:
Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to endless night. (120-124)
That beat is as heavy as Zeppelin. As for other sonic effects, Blake's occasional slant rhymes can create an off-kilter, life-out-of-balance feel to our modern ear. In all likelihood, these were not originally slant rhymes for the accent of his time and place. All the same, we encounter several nearly-rhyming couplets like "The Babe that weeps the Road beneath / Writes Revenge in realms of Death." (73-74). And he also throws in the occasional hard-charging alliteration: "The Bleat, the Bark, Bellow, and Roar / Are Waves that Beat on Heaven's Shore" (71-72).
It's probably fair to say, though, that the poem gets its energy more from rhythm than from doing unusual things with vowel sounds and so on—Blake doesn't really repeat vowel sounds too frequently. He shoots for variety. But the driving beat (check out "Form and Meter" for a breakdown) turns the poem from being a quaint schoolyard chant into something way more primal—something ancient priests would recite around a stone altar in a forest.
Yeah, we didn't know what an "augury" was either, at first. We thought it was, like, an old-timey English girl's name—and Blake must have known a bunch of these Augury ladies, and they were all pretty innocent. But—get this, gang—that explanation is not even remotely correct. Yeah, we feel bad and kind of horrible for even mentioning it.
So, in pure point of fact, an "augury" is a sign or omen predicting some future event. Since these are auguries of "innocence," they're pointing toward… er, innocence. But Blake's not talking about the same kind of innocence as Britney Spears in "Oops! I Did It Again." After all, she said that she was "not that innocent." (Btw, we're dunking our heads in buckets of Clamato as punishment for bringing up Ms. Spears and Blake at the same time. But it needed to be done…)
Blake is, more likely, talking about the innocence that Adam and Eve experienced in the Garden of Eden, before they (according to the story) ate the apple and started feeling ashamed of their naked bodies. Blake is imagining a time—in the past, in the future, and even in the present—where human beings can achieve this innocence again, and attain unity with God. His couplets are meant to point people away from a life of violence and division, and hint at this better—more innocent—state of being.
Since there's no real setting here, we're going to get abstract. So, how about this? The setting is… your mind. Perhaps you weren't expecting that?
This isn't just playing off Blake's reputation as a far-out seer. The basic realization Blake is trying to get his readers to have—to "see a world in a grain of sand"—has to happen in the mind. Almost all of the couplets are geared towards producing this revelation, showing how a small example of something can contain the truth about the whole. But, after stating this plainly at the beginning, Blake leaves his readers to connect the dots throughout the rest of the poem.
At the end, when he reaches the big spiritual epiphany—where God appears as a fellow human being to "those who dwell in realms of day" (132)—Blake is bringing home the ultimate vision that he has and that he wants everyone else to be able to have. For Blake, everything is part of God, but in a higher spiritual way. The suffering animals and suffering humans in the poem (and the humans who are causing the suffering) are all part of this "Human Form Divine" who appears to people in "realms of day" (eternity or heaven).
This is really the epiphany that Blake wants to inspire in his readers—to see all human and non-human forms as part of one Divine Being. And the mind is the setting where that epiphany is supposed to happen. Dig it.
Since there isn't any narrative thread in this poem—it being a scattershot collection of couplets—the speaker really isn't different from the actual poet. Usually, it's a bad idea to confuse a poem's speaker with the poet him- or herself. In this case, though, it's a safe bet that we're dealing with just Blake, dishing out his unfiltered opinions and insights. But… who in the wide, wide world of sports is this guy?
Blake was a high-powered, passionate, sometimes weird and irascible poet-artist… oh, and he also had mystical visions. The couplets clearly are coming from this kind of strange, amped-up mind. We get a really good sense of what his ideas are about a number of subjects—poetry, animal rights, politics, God—but we're not really put in a place where we're supposed to wonder if Blake is a reliable speaker or not. He sees himself as a prophet and a sage—and the couplets are meant to feel like they're coming from a position of spiritual authority.
These are two of the lines that best demonstrate how Blake, as the speaker, is both a prophet and a fairly quirky dude: "He who the ox to wrath has mov'd / Shall never be by woman loved" (31-32). The writer G.K. Chesterton thought these lines were ridiculous, and basically dismissed them as goofy nonsense. But they do make a kind of sense. Blake's saying not to cause problems where there shouldn't be any, or else people won't like you. Yeah, it's sort of simple, but it makes a point. At other times, we see how far-out and mystical Blake is. Without a Shmoop-style guide, any reader would probably be lost in space when confronting "Every tear from every eye / Becomes a babe in eternity" (67-68)… right?
We also know that Blake had (for his time) fairly radical politics: he was opposed to the British Empire, for one thing. At the same time, being a Christian, he was not a fan of gambling nor legalized prostitution. Yet, he was also a fairly unconventional Christian, who personally has visions of heaven—like at the end of this poem. In a way, Blake, as a speaker, is attractive because he's just so… different. He's not exactly presenting himself as an everyman—to the contrary, he seems so off-beat and strange that it's not disturbing, just engaging.
Most people who enjoy poetry could probably read "Auguries" and find something to like. Parts of it are appealingly straightforward: "A dog starv'd at his master's gate / Predicts the ruin of the state." (9-10). But the poem gets extremely difficult, even impenetrable, at points—and then the reader really does need a guide (or needs to have obsessed over Blake for a few years). For instance, what does "The caterpillar on the leaf / Repeats to thee thy mother's grief" mean? (37-38). Yeah, it's striking—but what's going on? (Psst—it's apparently some Garden of Eden thing.) That's where the scholars and Shmoop pages come in, gang. We're helpful like that.
Because of the mystical spin, you know this is a Blake poem. Sure, there are other poets who get pretty spiritual—Walt Whitman being a closely related example—but few claim to have actual visions and be directly in touch with Eternity. That's probably the thing Blake is best known for, really—people think of him as being either insane or an enlightened seer. (There's likely enough fodder in "Auguries" for both sides of that debate.)
Here's an example: "The Bleat, the Bark, Bellow, and Roar / Are Waves that Beat on Heaven's Shore." This is implying that the forces at play in the material world—symbolized by animal noises—actually reach out to affect and touch the world of eternity, or heaven. (Yeah, we told you folks thought he was kooky.)
Also, animals pop-up all the time in Blake's poetry: "The Tyger" and "The Lamb" are classic examples. He's a poet who is unusually sympathetic to the animal and natural worlds (even though he also said that Nature was just a grand illusion). Frequently, he uses animals as a way to say something about humans—indirectly, so you can see it in a new way. For instance, in "Auguries of Innocence" he says, "The poison of the honey bee / Is the artist's jealousy" (49-50).
Blake's always concerned with human suffering—and animal suffering as well. His poems are rich with compassion, and constantly chastise humans for not being kinder to each other. Blake really didn't like bullies or anyone who was causing suffering to anyone else, but his method is (usually) not to totally damn them, but to hold up a mirror. He's trying to give the Great Britain of his time the chance to get a good look at itself and its flaws, in order to help it to change. "Auguries" does this constantly. It's classic Blake and one of his most characteristic calling cards.
Iambic pentameter? Don't make us laugh. This poem is written in iambic tetrameter—surely the best of all the iambic meters. That's right—your teachers have been filling your minds with outrageous lies all this time.
Ha—just kidding. Iambic pentameter has a lot to be said for it, no doubt. Some dude named Shakespeare apparently liked it, which is fine—but, here, we're all about Blake. And Blake went with the tetrameter (at least, in this case). But, what's the difference? What are we even talking about?
Don't worry, we're going to break it down. An iamb is just two beats—like daDUM. These two beats equal one poetic foot. So, if you go daDUM five times, that's iambic pentameter—five iambic feet (penta- means five). Now, if you go daDUM four times, that's iambic tetrameter—four feet (tetra- means four). In other words, iambic pentameter uses five metrical feet, and iambic tetrameter uses four.
Do we have examples? Oh, yes. We have a vast array of examples (…or just this one—but it's all you need):
He who the Ox to wrath has mov'd
Shall never be by Woman lov'd. (31-32)
Hear those four iambs? daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM. (Blake replaces the E in "loved" with an apostrophe—rendering it "lov'd"—just to make sure that you're pronouncing it as one syllable.)
But the first stanza isn't an iambic tetrameter couplet—the "to see a world in a grain of sand" part is actually a quatrain (a four-line stanza), written in ballad meter. In this case, we're not counting the strict number of syllables—just the beats, the emphasized syllables. Try to tap your foot in time.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. (1-4)
Ballad meter is an extremely common kind of meter, and we think it appears here to allow the speaker time to set the ground rules for the poem. Before we dive in, we have to get a sense of this project—to put on our big-picture goggles and see how small things have big consequences. This choice of meter lets the speaker present his case more formally before diving into the more sing-song-y meter and rhyme scheme.
Now, about that rhyme scheme: once we're clear of the ABAB introduction of lines 1-4 (where each letter stands for that line's end rhyme, we move into an even simpler AABBCC pattern that, coupled with the shift to iambic tetrameter, makes the couplets seem, well, a bit nursery-rhyme-y. Of course, that also fits with this poem, since each couplet seems like a bit of wisdom, an aphorism to live by, you young whippersnappers, you. Essentially, the poem is announcing a set of philosophies on life and how it should be lived, and to that end each couplet uses a simple, memorable form to relay this advice.
One last question you might want to ask when it comes to this poem's form: "What is up with all that capitalization?" No, there's no set pattern to Blake's use of capital letters here. It seems most likely the case that he's using capital letters for emphasis, to call attention to words he wants to pop off the page for his readers—no big-picture goggles necessary this time.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour (1-4)
The first four lines make up the poem behind the poem. These four lines pack the basic point of the other 128 lines of the poem into a conveniently short space. To illustrate their point, imagine one of those weird toys—we don't know if they still exist—a kind of little piece of matter you drop into a bowl of water. Overnight it blows up into a bigger object—a much larger spongey dinosaur toy, say—inflated by the water. Well, seeing "a world in a grain of sand" is a bit like that—except the toy is any one of Blake's little metaphors listed in this poem, and the water is your mind. Yeah—the top of your head just flew off.
Basically, the idea is that any little thing in the world—a grain of sand, a wildflower—contains some sort of greater cosmic truth if you can look at it with enough energy and imagination. A wildflower is a miniature heaven, a grain of sand is a miniature world… and every person and other living thing, in Blake's view, is a miniature of the Divine Human or "Human Form Divine," which he identified with Jesus. Nearly all the metaphors Blake uses in the rest of the poem tend to be like worlds hidden in grains of sand. A robin in a cage is an example of freedom being crushed by tyranny in a universal way, for example.
A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage. (5-6)
The Bat that flits at close of Eve
Has left the Brain that won't believe. (25-26)
Our "Summary" pages cover the different animal metaphors and show how they unfold. So for the particular examples you should check them out. But, here, we just want to talk about animals in general, as symbols. What's the point of using so many animals in so many different ways? Blake seems to be saying that, if you can be sensitive to things that are happening in the animal world (a world that people typically consider to be less important than the human world), you can probably be sensitive to those same things when they happen in the human world. If a robin getting caged makes heaven angry, what about political prisoners? Isn't all tyranny and unjust imprisonment kind of awful?
At other times, Blake will use animals to symbolize things about human beings. For instance, the bat is an animal that symbolizes the thoughts of an unbeliever, in Blake's use of the image. Ultimately, these animals are our own powers and personalities—kind of like the way in Harry Potter, the "patronus" spell creates a protective animal spirit-thing that shows something about the person who casts the spell (that is, if you happen to know what we're talking about).
The Prince's Robes & Beggars' Rags
Are Toadstools on the Miser's Bags. (51-52)
The Beggar's Rags, fluttering in Air,
Does to Rags the Heavens tear. (75-76)
Blake doesn't have a passion for fashion—but he does bring up this clothing metaphor twice. In the first example, rags and robes symbolize inequality (duh), but the rags in the second example are doing something else: they're tearing apart the heavens. It's still a protest against poverty, but it's also an example of how a beggar isn't someone you should just ignore or write off. His rags are causing this massive catastrophe. They're tearing the heavens to pieces. Blake's challenging people's complacency, suggesting that casual suffering, to which people typically don't pay attention, has this massive, unseen effect: it's ruining reality itself.
Joy & Woe are woven fine,
A Clothing for the Soul divine;
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine. (59-62)
So, we've said that Blake wasn't exactly a fashionista. But he's talking about clothes again, here—so maybe we were wrong. But these are symbolic, metaphorical clothes—making Blake a Ralph Lauren of the Mind (if you will). Joy and woe are experiences that the soul "wears"—it hasn't experienced them in the womb, but when it comes into the world, it gets a taste of happiness and suffering (and then some).
But joy is a fine, subtle emotion—which is why it's made of a rich fabric like silk. Woe is thick, coarse outerwear. In context, these lines are related to the discussion of woe and joy that comes in the lines immediately before them (55-58), expanding on the topic.
Every Tear from Every Eye
Becomes a Babe in Eternity.
This is caught by Females bright
And return'd to its own delight. (67-70)
A tear of real joy or sadness is something that will bear fruit in eternity. It's a sign of humanity and it can only develop into something more substantial and divine. This is what Blake means by calling it a "babe." The "Females Bright" who catch the babe and return it are mythological figures—they're like a positive version of the Fates from Greek Mythology. They're helping to weave the fabric of human destiny.
He who mocks the Infant's Faith
Shall be mock'd in Age & Death.
He who shall teach the Child to Doubt
The rotting Grave shall ne'er get out.
He who respects the Infant's faith
Triumphs over Hell & Death. (85-90)
Blake clearly cares a lot about "the infant's faith"—people who damage it are quite bad, in his view, and people who respect it are headed in the right direction. Blake's idea seems to be that faith is part of human nature—it's something a baby or small child just has. So, someone who damages that, who tries to take this basic trust and bend it toward skepticism, is effectively ruining humanity—making humans less human (according to Blake).
Without a belief in an eternal reality, says Blake, you've really got nothing to look forward to except for old age, sickness, and death. That's what the "mock'd in Age & Death" part and the "The Rotting Grave shall ne'er get out" part are all about. But, if you respect the infant's faith, then you triumph over death, since you're headed toward eternity.
When Gold & Gems adorn the Plow
To peaceful Arts shall Envy bow (101-102)
This one is pretty simple. A plow is the opposite of weaponry—it's a peaceful tool, used for agriculture. So, Blake's saying that when people finally get their act together, they're going to spend lots of cash and gold and gems on peaceful arts—science, poetry, agriculture, and stuff like that—and less on war. Envy is a source of conflict, but it will eventually humble itself, and let the peaceful things that need to happen happen. It's a PBS-style plea for the arts.
Every Night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born.
Every Morn & every Night
Some are Born to sweet Delight.
Some are Born to sweet Delight,
Some are born to Endless Night. (119-124)
The symbolism here is pretty straightforward—"Endless Night" is suffering and misery. But you can be born to "endless night" when you get up in the morning or when it's late in the evening. It doesn't matter. It's a state of mind, not the literal time of day. "Sweet Delight" is the opposite—it's a spiritual day-time, full of joy.
Blake is saying that our lives are defined by these shifting states. We go from being sad to happy and back again—the process doesn't end… unless you find some way to break out of it. For Blake, the way to get out is a mystical and artistic practice—you can visualize the spiritual world through artwork or actually see it through mystical experiences.
We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro' the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to Perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light. (125-128)
If you're seeing "through" your eye, you're approaching your eye as a tool you have. You're looking through it the same way you'd look through a telescope or a microscope. What you're really looking with is the spirit—which is behind the eye and uses it as this tool. That way, you can see hidden poetic dimensions of reality—the "world in a grain of sand" from the very beginning.
But, if you just see with your eye, then you're being deluded. Since Blake views the physical world as an illusion—a distorted image of the spiritual world—he thinks that you can't just take everything at face value. Real imagination and spiritual power are needed to perceive the eternal realities that genuinely exist—like reading a Where's Waldo book, except with God instead of Waldo or something.
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in the Night,
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day. (129-132)
When Blake says that God appears as "Light" to "poor Souls" who dwell in "Night," he's saying that God doesn't typically appear to human beings, what with their living in the material world. The closest thing we have is light from the sun—since it's this warming force that keeps everything alive.
Even though the sun's pretty amazing, it's just a pale reflection of the power of God. Plus, light is inhuman—it's just an impersonal, natural force. But, says Blake, when you enter the eternal world, God doesn't appear as a blob of light anymore—instead, he's a "human," in the sense that he's this Cosmic Human or "Human Form Divine," which Blake considers to be the same as Christ. God appears as the being he really is—someone who isn't less than human, and is infinitely capable of loving and caring for everything that lives.
You can't really say "harlot" in a G-rated poem. But aside from all the references to prostitution, there's not really any wild and crazy erotic hi-jinks in this poem—you'll have to check out Blake's "Visions of the Daughters of Albion" for those. (And by today's standards, Blake is still restrained.) Overall, "Auguries" is a pretty tame poem, really. Of course, you have a lot of horrific, violent animal abuse—but, hey, so does Dumbo. For some reason, you can get away with violence more than you can get away with sex, as far as ratings go (Jaws was just PG). So we're going to stick with a solid and respectable PG rating.