Auguries of Innocence Summary
The plot of this poem is… er, there is no plot. And that's not just some Zen wisdom straight out The Karate Kid Part III. We mean, there actually isn't too much of a plot or really even an order to this poem. Most Blake scholars agree that "Auguries" is really just a bunch of different couplets Blake collected together and put into no particular order—aside from the beginning and the end part. There's a kind of overarching order, but it's pretty vague. So, are you ready for some vagueness? We definitely are.
The beginning of the poem is the key to everything that follows (like your Little Orphan Annie decoder pin): "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." (Blake means that you can find universes of meaning and revelation hidden inside the smallest things.)
After that, some animals show up. And keep showing up. There are a lot of animals in this poem, and they're all being used to make some sort of greater point about the universe or human injustices or wisdom or… lots of stuff. Each one of the animals in these couplets is like that "world in a grain of sand." It's not just Pooh Bear fun-time hour—this is serious. Robins are being caged, atheist owls are flying around, roosters are getting ready to fight each other—and they all symbolize stuff and have greater implications. Not every couplet has an animal in it—some are just bits of sagely advice, some meditate on reason and doubt.
At the end, though, Blake's poem stops being so hodgepodge. He gets real spiritual, and discusses how God appears to people in different situations and what human suffering and joy are all about. He leads the reader through symbols ("auguries") pointing toward a state of spiritual innocence—a direct description of that enlightened state of being.
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.
- Blake's speaker gives us a handy key to the rest of the poem in these first four lines. In a nutshell—or, in Blake's own words, "in a grain of sand"—it provides the greater theme and message of the poem, compressed down to bite-size: a crunchy wisdom nugget. They're cryptic, mystical lines.
- He is suggesting that the entire universe can be a contained in a grain of sand in a spiritual way—it's not that you would literally see the entire world by looking, physically, at a grain of sand or something. It's more that a glimpse of something tiny can provoke you to imagine something really big—tons of images can come pouring in. According to Blake, that's the whole point of a metaphor. That's what it does.
- A wildflower can contain a heaven because the beauty of a flower is (for Blake) a piece of heaven, and it can make you imagine or visualize that better and more beautiful world. Also, a grain of sand is a world in miniature, because it's a tiny piece of a world, of earth. The little parts reflect the big things that they're parts of.
- The speaker keeps playing with this idea of big things contained in small things. Fitting infinity in the palm of your hand seems like a contradiction—since infinity is endless and the palm of your hand isn't. The same thing goes for fitting eternity into an hour. But the speaker doesn't think infinity is endless space or eternity is endless time. He thinks they're part of the "Eternal Now," so to speak—you really enter eternity and infinity if you get into a state of poetic imagination in the present moment. (It's like The Daily Show's "Moment of Zen"—kind of.) Blake's compadre Emily Dickinson meant the same thing when she wrote, "Eternity is comprised of Nows." Far out, right?
- Unlike the rest of the poem, these first four lines are different. They're written in ballad meter (four beats in one line, then three in the next)—like "Amazing Grace," the Gilligan's Island theme song, and a billion Emily Dickinson poems. They're in a quatrain, too—whereas everything else is a couplet in iambic tetrameter (like iambic pentameter, but with four feet instead of five). Don't worry about this alphabet soup of terms, though. For all the explanations, see the "Form and Meter" section.
A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
- How many birds are in cages all over the world? The answer is: a lot. It's a pretty everyday sort of thing. Most people probably don't think this is particularly horrible, though plenty of animal rights activists would beg to differ. One on the one hand, the speaker seems to be on the animal rights' people's side—but he also might have a little more going on than an enthusiasm for the rights of birds.
- The caged bird is a tiny example of injustice—of someone wrecking someone else's freedom. But the speaker argues that these tiny injustices have bigger, cosmic consequences. That's why heaven itself gets in a rage: a small example of freedom being crushed is really an example of freedom getting crushed everywhere, on a global or universal scale, and with human beings and not just animals. It's like what Martin Luther King Jr. said, "An injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere." Our speaker couldn't agree more.
- Heaven in this case is made up of the powers that control the universe—a higher, divine world, not the sky-and-clouds heaven.
- The rhyme here directly connects heaven's "rage" with its source, the "cage."
- Also, now we're in full iambic tetrameter mode at this point. For more on this, see the "Form and Meter" section.
A dove house fill'd with doves & Pigeons
Shudders Hell thro' all its regions.
- Basically, we're still in the same territory as in the last lines. Birds are being imprisoned—unjustly. But this time, it's not heaven that's being upset—it's hell.
- When Jesus dies during the crucifixion (in the Gospel of Matthew's telling of the story) it causes earthquakes to break out and it opens tombs. Blake isn't necessarily making this reference when he talks about the imprisoned doves causing hell to shudder (since hell is, metaphorically, under the earth)—but he is suggesting that suffering (any kind of suffering, whether it's doves, robins, dogs, people, or whoever) causes the same kind of universal reaction. It's a diss to Mama Earth herself, and even hell is disturbed.
A dog starv'd at his Master's Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
- Now, we go from the bird-world to canines, although we're still vibing on the animal theme. Also, we're not talking about freedom being crushed anymore, specifically. The speaker's focused on attacking good, old-fashioned cruelty. People starving dogs—that's pretty low.
- In the same way that the caged robin is a symbol for freedom being crushed anywhere and everywhere in the world, the starving dog is a symbol of cruelty and injustice. Even though this is just one dog, its owners' neglectful and probably evil attitude is a tiny piece of the neglectful and uncaring nature found throughout society. They will also doom that society—which is why they predict "the ruin of the State."
- (There's probably some personal politics going on here too, with Blake attacking the British political state of his own time.)
A Horse misus'd upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood.
- Like the dog from the last two lines, the horse is another example of victimhood and the consequences of pointless cruelty the world over.
- Also, in the same way that the robin's cage puts heaven in a rage, the horse's ill-treatment calls for vengeance from the higher powers of the heavenly world against human beings. The abused horse is a living example of the twisted nature of human beings—the way they've become warped into cruelty when they should be feeling pity and mercy.
- Form note here: You may think that rhyme scheme that's been holding up till now (check out "Form and Meter") is broken with these lines. Back in the poetic day, though, words were pronounced differently ("again," for example, was pronounced with a long "A" vowel sound). So, it's more than likely that "road" and "blood" might have been a perfect rhyme in Blake's own time.
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fibre from the Brain does tear.
- The speaker's still in animal rights activist mode. Like the dog and the horse that came before it (and, really, the robin and the doves—since humans imprisoned them, too), the hunted hare is yet another sterling example of typical human cruelty. And like all those other critters, it is a "world in a grain of sand"—since its plight is the plight of anyone who gets unfairly pursued, tracked down, and killed.
- Why the hare's cries tear fibers out of a brain is a tougher question (sounds painful). One way to think of it is that the cruel things people do help make them less human. In Blake's view, it's only genuinely human to do things that involve "Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love"—but to slaughter people—or hares—is something else.
- Hence, being cruel takes something away from you—it tears fibers off your brain, the body part that contains your sense of identity. If you lose too many pieces, you can end up becoming another mindless killer—sort of like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. You'd be more of a demon or an all-destroying robot than a person.
- And here's a question: why does Blake capitalize the words he capitalizes? Think about this when you look at the other lines in the poem, too—then check out "Form and Meter."
A Skylark wounded in the wing,
A Cherubim does cease to sing.
- Now, it's back to birds. A skylark is, of course, a bird. But a Cherubim (technically, "Cherubim" is supposed to be plural, but Blake doesn't use it that way) is an angel—and not just a cherub of the small, naked, cupid variety. They've traditionally been pictured in ways that are a little more intense, with books and animals and wings popping out all over.
- Blake emphasizes that a skylark getting injured isn't just some non-event—it matters, it has real significance. It causes an angelic being to fall silent, probably from sympathizing with its pain. Like Blake wrote in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," "All that lives is holy."
- The passage also might allude to the Bible (Blake's favorite book). Matthew 10:29 reads: "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your father's care." If an injured or dead sparrow is important to God, the speaker implies, maybe we should take the smallest forms of suffering more seriously.
Additionally, take a look at the brief alliteration between "wounded" and "wing." We have more to say about that in "Sound Check."
The Game Cock clipp'd and arm'd for fight
Does the Rising Sun affright.
- Yeah, it's another bird—this time, a rooster. And the poem continues on the same "world in a grain of sand" theme: an apparently little thing has a bigger impact or resonance or significance. Whereas the wounded skylark made an angel fall mute, the rooster, armed for cockfighting, scares the sun itself.
- In this case, though, the rooster brings together a bunch of things we've already seen before. Freedom being crushed? Check. Cruelty? Check. Suffering? Check. Violence? Check. The human capacity for evil (since humans organize cockfights)? Check!
- The victimized ready-to-fight rooster puts pain and human wickedness front and center. No wonder he's freaking the sun out—especially since the sun's rising, waking up from a long night and expecting to look on a fine, fresh world without all these horrors infesting it.
Every Wolf's & Lion's howl
Raises from Hell a Human Soul.
- We're still in Woodland Critter Fun Time Hour. But this one's a little different from the couplets that came before it. It's not an example of someone doing something cruel to an animal (unless some human is doing something to the wolves and lions, making them howl), rather it's an example of animals doing some pretty typical animal stuff—namely, howling.
- But this howling has a cosmic effect: it's raising human souls up from hell. So, that puts it more in line with all these other animal couplets—a seemingly little thing having a bigger implication. Blake didn't believe in eternal hell, so he uses "hell" here to mean a state of mind, a state of suffering. The outburst of energy, or of life-force, or of imagination that these howls symbolize can help yank people's souls out of this state (or, at least, that's one interpretation).
- "Howl" and "soul" are likely another example of an old-timey rhyming pair. (Also, there's a similarity between "howl" and "hell" that adds something, sound-wise, to the poem. Check out "Sound Check" for the details.)
The wild deer, wand'ring here & there,
Keeps the Human Soul from Care.
- Like the last couplet, this one isn't really about animal suffering. While the howling lions and wolves symbolize some sort of power that could free souls from hell, the wandering deer symbolizes the carefree, lighthearted part of people: very chillaxed.
- "Care" here means the problems that we have to deal with in daily life—you only have to "take care" if something bad or distressing might happen to you. The free deer in the woods doesn't need to take precautions.
- He or she just keeps rolling—like Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski. (The deer abides…)
- It's also another "world in a grain of sand" moment because the deer is given a pretty mighty task: saving humans from their own tendency to get lost in little worries and difficulties.
- Plus—there's an internal rhyme here with "deer" and "here." Check out "Form and Meter" for more.
The Lamb misus'd breeds public strife
And yet forgives the Butcher's Knife.
- Ah, now we're back to familiar ground: animal abuse. You might've thought you were finished with that topic.
- But you aren't. On the one hand, the lamb is another victim of human violence—and its mistreatment leads to the whole society getting torn by strife. It's karma, poetic justice.
- But, here, Blake is also uniting the image of an ordinary, everyday lamb getting slaughtered with the image of Jesus, the Lamb of God, dying for the sins of humankind. This is part of the reason why the lamb asks for the butcher's knife (or the butcher himself) to be forgiven: Jesus asks for his executioners' forgiveness when he's dying on the cross. In Luke 23:34, he says, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
- But there's an interesting contradiction here: even though the lamb forgives the butcher, the crime still affects the society as a whole. On the one hand, there's forgiveness—but there's still a kind of injustice too, since cruelty can only makes things worse.
The Bat that flits at close of Eve
Has left the Brain that won't believe.
- Now, we're still dealing with an animal—just not one that's being abused or tortured. Maybe this comes as a relief?
- The bat is still "a world in a grain of sand," though—it's more than what it first appears to be. Particularly, it symbolizes a thought (or something) emerging from the mind of an unbeliever.
- Blake was a Christian—though a very unorthodox one—and didn't take too kindly to atheism, as this couplet makes clear.
- Maybe Blake chose bats because they're usually considered spooky or because they're said to be blind (even though no bats really are totally blind; but the idea makes sense, since being an unbeliever, in Blake's view, would make you blind to spiritual realities). Whatever the reason, we're supposed to imagine this bat flying out of an atheist's mind—which you might picture as some sort of attic or crumbling tower that only has old junk and bats in it. Could it be that the bat symbolizes a doubt flying out from this skeptical mind?
- Also, is there any greater symbolism to the fact that the bat is flitting around at "close of Eve"? It's a classically eerie time of day, but Blake could also be suggesting that the bat's unbelieving attitude is something that leads toward a deeper darkness or a state of mental decline.
The Owl that calls upon the Night
Speaks the Unbeliever's fright.
- Even though scholars say that these couplets were (more or less) randomly gathered together by Blake from his notebooks, you can still see how there's a kind of order. Like, right here—he's talking about an owl and atheism, right after talking about a bat and atheism. He's not done riffing on flying, nocturnal animals that symbolize not believing in God.
- How does the owl sound like it's speaking "the Unbeliever's fright"? It seems like this "fright" is a kind of cosmic, existential despair. You're worried that there's no higher purpose, nothing out there in the dark. Maybe Blake's thinking that the owl's cry of "Hoo!" sounds like a question, "Who?" The owl might be wondering who, in the night, is responsible for creating the world. (Of course, "the Unbeliever's fright" can also be expressed through undeniably catchy pop rock.)
He who shall hurt the little Wren
Shall never be belov'd by Men.
- This should seem pretty familiar. Injuring birds is bad—this is yet another point in the animal rights zone. It's a theme Blake has harped on before.
- Overall, the takeaway is: if you're cruel to birds, you're probably not going to inspire real affection among other human beings either. Little acts of cruelty indicate bigger truths about someone's character or personality.
He who the Ox to wrath has mov'd
Shall never be by Woman lov'd.
- This is a weird one—though it's still related to the mistreatment of animals, like so many couplets before it.
- The famous British writer G.K. Chesterton thought it was one of Blake's most ridiculous lines, and made fun of "the idea that the success of some gentleman in the society of ladies depends upon whether he has previously at some time or other slightly irritated an ox" (source).
- But is it really that nuts? Is Blake actually talking about something specifically related to oxen? It seems that Blake might simply be saying that if you start trouble where there shouldn't be any—like in the peaceful world of oxen—people won't like you. It'll wreck your character—in this case, impacting some dude's ability to charm women.
- Note that the previous couplet had to do with how men wouldn't like you if you went around hurting wrens—this one switches up the genders and the animals.
The wanton Boy that kills the Fly
Shall feel the Spider's enmity.
- This is pure poetic justice—karma, the law of cause and effect. What you do comes back to get you.
- In this case, the word "wanton" means that the boy is cruel in a totally unprovoked way. He's just ripping the wings off flies for recreation, to pass the time after school. The kid is like some sort of young Jack the Ripper in training. But he's going to get his.
- Blake is toying with the idea that the boy, as punishment for torturing flies, will be reincarnated as a fly and get killed by a spider. Blake doesn't necessarily think that this, specifically, is going to happen. But he does think that wrathful and cruel people are bound to fall victim to wrath and cruelty: the universe is going to fling it back at them.
He who torments the Chafer's sprite
Weaves a Bower in endless Night.
- A "chafer" is a bug—a scarab beetle, specifically. Since Blake thinks that even bugs and worms have God in them, someone who tortures a bug seems kind of awful, in his eyes. He's covered the bases with cruelty to birds and mammals—now he's going down into the insect world. This couplet, the one before it, and the two after it all deal with bugs in some way.
- Blake says it's wrong to torment the chafer's "sprite." This does not mean that this person would be torturing a refreshing, carbonated beverage in a green plastic bottle, belonging to a certain scarab beetle. A "sprite" is a legendary creature—an elf-like being—but it comes from the Latin word for spirit ("spiritus"). So, Blake means that you shouldn't torment the soul or spirit of the beetle, since that's the part that belongs to and is part of God.
- By committing acts of cruelty toward the souls of bugs, a person is weaving "a Bower in endless Night." A "bower" is a shelter made from tree branches and vines woven together—so, cruel actions create a home in "endless night," a world of hellish loneliness. Cruelty seals you in with your own egotism, since acting cruelly demonstrates that you don't care about anyone else.
- Of course, the night might be endless, but not the time you'll spend in it. Blake says that the souls of living things are what's eternal, not the time they spend in different states of being. Hell, for him, is more of a state of mind—if you find animal cruelty pretty entertaining, you're probably already in hell, as far as Blake's concerned. He leaves the possibility of making a 180 and becoming more compassionate totally wide open.
The Catterpillar on the Leaf
Repeats to thee thy Mother's grief.
- This is tough. Blake was always neck-deep in the Bible. It was his favorite book, and without constantly having the Bible in mind the way he did, it's impossible to figure this one out. (Even if you are constantly thinking about the Bible, it's still probably really difficult.)
- In this case "thy Mother" is actually the mother of all humankind (according to the Bible's version of events): Eve. A snake (or, the Devil), as almost everyone knows, tricks Eve into eating an apple, then it's chaos and suffering and confusion for humanity from there on out.
- So what does this have to do with a caterpillar? Well, it's complicated. But try this on for size: as Blake understood the Eden story, after Eve and Adam eat from the apple (which is a symbol of "the knowledge of good and evil") they fall from a higher spiritual realm that Blake calls "Innocence" into the world of "Experience": the messed-up world we all live in.
- The caterpillar repeats Eve's grief at eating the apple, because it's trapped in the world of experience—instead of being a spiritual being living in a better world, it's just another caterpillar, one in a trillion, hustling to get by.
- Also, it's destructive, since it eats leaves and flowers to survive.
- Weird? You bet, but does it make sense? If you look at everything else Blake ever wrote, it does.
Kill not the Moth nor Butterfly,
For the Last Judgement draweth nigh.
- This couplet isn't too different from those we've seen before. It also deals with insects, like the three that came before it, and it's also attacking animal cruelty.
- In the same way that the boy who kills the fly ends up learning what it's like to be attacked (and probably killed) by a spider, this couplet says that people who go around slaughtering moths and butterflies are at the risk of experiencing "The Last Judgment." They're going to need to pay for their sins.
- This also fits in with the "world in a grain of sand" thing—butchering butterflies might, in the grand scheme of things, seem like small potatoes. But, according to Blake, it's causing the Last Judgment to come down—it's bringing about the end of the world. Blake means this in a metaphorical way—cruelty is going to bring cruelty back against you (like in the couplet about the boy killing the fly).
He who shall train the Horse to War
Shall never pass the Polar Bar.
- We're still dealing with animals here, but this time not with direct cruelty to animals… exactly. No one is, apparently, torturing this horse—it's just being trained to fight, like humans do. But, in Blake's eyes, this is a crime, because it's twisting a peaceful part of nature—horses—toward a destructive end.
- One of Blake's biggest fans, the critic Foster Damon, claims that the "polar bar" line references The Odyssey, where humans are said to enter the underworld through a gate in the north. (Blake also talks about a gate in the north leading to the spiritual world in his poem The Book of Thel.)
- So, using Damon's idea, Blake means that, if you're messing with nature and turning peaceful animals or things toward violence, you're not going to get to enter the spiritual world.
- Also, this is another case where the rhyme is probably based on old-time pronunciation ("war" and "bar").
The Beggar's Dog & Widow's Cat,
Feed them & thou wilt grow fat.
- Now, Blake is switching things around a little. Instead of saying something like, "He who Punches a Pig in the Face / Never shall Finish the Stockcar Race" (not that that's a real one), he's putting a positive spin on things.
- Feeding animals belonging to people who are in tough situations (beggars and widows) will help you make sure that you're well-fed. In the same way that cruelty comes back at you, generosity rebounds back too. You "reap what you sow," in other words.
The Gnat that sings his Summer's song
Poison gets from Slander's tongue.
- Imagine this: you're a gnat. You're just chilling out, making gnat noises, singing, hovering over a field with a bunch of gnat buddies. Then, somewhere on planet Earth, someone slanders someone else—they talk smack, false smack. If you knew about it, it would ruin your song—you'd buzz out-of-key, in an upset way.
- That's basically the picture Blake's presenting us with. It's yet another "world in a grain of sand" moment.
- Disrupting a tiny gnat's song reflects something bigger: slander, a lie told about someone (probably, someone who's trying to do good).
- Note, yet again the modern trouble we'd have making "song" rhyme with "tongue." It worked for Blake, though.
The poison of the Snake & Newt
Is the sweat of Envy's Foot.
- You know the drill by this point: a little thing from nature, like snake or newt poison (there are poison newts out there), reflects a bigger human issue, like the emotion of envy. Yep—it's the "world in a grain of sand" repeated all over again.
- Also, note that we're not talking about birds, mammals, or insects this time. We're dealing with reptiles and amphibians. So Blake seems pretty determined to use examples with all the animal kingdom.
- Also, the sweat is from "Envy's Foot" (ew) for a simple reason: foot sweat is gross and so is envy.
- Again, we have some old-time rhyme with "newt" and "foot."
- Note: most of these couplets involve a metaphor of some kind. In this one, the metaphor is really directly stated because Blake says that the poison "is" the "sweat of Envy's Foot."
The poison of the Honey Bee
Is the Artist's Jealousy.
- An artist is like a honeybee because they both create sweet, good things: art and honey. So the sting or poison of a honeybee is like the artist's dark side. Although artists are doing something nice, they can't help getting jealous about other artists.
- There are actually two ways you can take this couplet, and they both make a lot of sense (though one might make a little more). If the "poison" of the bee is a reference to its sting, then it means the artist's jealousy—which can be pride over his/her work, or jealousy of someone else's work—is something that can either defend that artist or injure other people.
- But if it's not a reference to the sting, and it's a poison that actually poisons the bee and wrecks its ability to create honey, then Blake means that jealousy is something that ruins the artist's ability to work. Both make sense, but maybe we lean toward that first interpretation.
The Prince's Robes & Beggars' Rags
Are Toadstools on the Miser's Bags.
- This is another straight-up metaphor. The robes and rags "are" the toadstools. And this couplet doesn't have anything to do with animals.
- Also, this one is pretty tough. We get that Blake is saying something negative about the prince's robes and beggar's rags, since he's saying that they're toadstools. And being a miser isn't usually a good thing. But in what sense are the robes and rags really like toadstools on a miser's bag? It's sort of a puzzle, though it definitely has a solution.
- First of all: princes are rich and misers are poor. Yet both of their kinds of clothing are being compared to toadstools—fungus. And where's that fungus growing? It's growing on a miser's bags—the bags of someone who hoards money and doesn't use it, especially not for charity.
- So, Blake might be saying that the miserliness of human beings—their greed and attachment to money instead of what money can be used for—helps cause inequality. Some people are wearing robes, and others are wearing rags. If people had a more generous spirit and saw themselves as part of a greater human family, this probably wouldn't be happening.
A truth that's told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent.
- Suddenly, Blake snaps out of metaphor mode. This couplet is more of a proverb—a catchy little saying, a maxim, an aphorism.
- "A truth that's told with bad intent" is worse than any kind of lie, because some lies can be well-intentioned, possibly even helpful. There's such a thing as a "white lie," in Blake's view. But if someone's using a truth for an evil purpose—that's obviously bad, not only because of its effect, but because it makes the truth seem corrupted, too. You can use a lie to help the truth, and you can use a truth to damage the truth. It's sort of a paradox.
- What would be an example? Maybe stomping all over someone's dream—like saying, "You'll never get to be a professional ping pong champion!" It might be true—but what's the point, aside from hurting someone's feelings?
It is right it should be so;
Man was made for Joy & Woe;
And when this we rightly know
Thro' the World we safely go.
- Don't expect perfect happiness, Shmoopers. Then again, don't expect total misery. Expect a mixture of both, says Blake, and you'll have the right perspective on life. You'll be able to get through it without feeling utterly cheated.
- Also, joy and suffering seem to exist as a complementary pair—you can't have one without the other.
- Note that he's still using couplets, but these four lines are all part of the same argument—unlike any of the couplets that have come before, except for the first four lines of the poem (the opening "grain of sand" part).
- He's also still in proverb mode like in the last couplet—he's not referencing any critters.
- The fact that he keeps the same rhyme through all four lines demonstrates that these are four lines that hang together—they're not like the couplets from before.
Joy & Woe are woven fine,
A Clothing for the Soul divine;
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
- Blake continues on the "Joy and Woe" theme. These four lines are rubbing elbows with the four lines that came before them for a reason.
- But what Blake's saying in this case might be a little harder to understand. Why are joy and woe "woven fine"? And why are they the hot, new Urban Outfitters garb that the Soul is wearing?
- Well, since humans (and all living things, according to Blake) have souls, their experiences in the world become like a kind of clothing. Like people say, "It builds character"—joy and woe wrap the soul in experience, giving it a unique character and identity. They make it an individual.
- So, the idea that joy and woe are like threads weaving together a garment is a strange and unexpected metaphor. It's the kind of interesting, left-field thing Blake specializes in.
- The last two lines help prop up a point made in the last section: joy and grief are complementary. You can't have one without the other. A joy is somehow hidden under every grief, waiting to balance it out and harmonize it. The fact that joy is made of "silken twine" indicates the high quality, Versace-level elegance and subtlety of joy as an emotion.
- Note how Blake uses the similar sounds of "woe" and "woven" for an effect. Check out "Sound Check" for all the goods.
The Babe is more than swadling Bands;
Throughout all these Human Lands.
- Blake is stating something obvious: a baby isn't the same as the blankets he or she is wrapped in. Everybody knows this, Blake says—no one in any "human land" is going to deny this. So, Blake means to suggest, why don't people think that humans are more than what they physically appear to be?
- As a radical Christian, Blake believed that there's such a thing as a spiritual body or "imaginative body"—the body in which Christ was resurrected—but that it's different from the physical body, and is really the same thing as the soul. Blake liked to call the physical body a "vegetable body," meaning that it grew out of the earth and would eventually decay back into it. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
- He talks smack against people who he thinks are distorting Christianity, writing in his masterwork, Jerusalem: "I know of no other Christianity and of no other Gospel than the liberty both of body and mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination—Imagination, the real and Eternal World of which this Vegetable Universe is but a faint shadow, and in which we shall live in our Eternal or Imaginative Bodies, when these Vegetable Mortal Bodies are no more."
- In this little couplet, he's basically making the same point—that humans are spiritual beings and not just physical things—but in a much shorter, less elaborate way.
Tools were made, & born were hands,
Every Farmer Understands.
- These lines continue the rhyme from the last two lines—which probably indicates that we're meant to connect them, or read them together.
- The last couplet was talking about how babies are more than (and, actually, totally different from) the swaddling bands they're wrapped in—implying that humans are also more than the physical beings they merely appear to be. They're spiritual beings, and reality itself is spiritual.
- This couplet continues with that theme—it draws an analogy with a simple fact that everyone agrees with: "Tools were made, & born were hands." Almost no one is going to object to that—a hammer isn't typically the child of a mother and father hammer, and an actual human hand is usually attached to a human who was born to human parents.
- So, what's the point? Is Blake just stating conventional wisdom that everybody already knows? Nope. This is the analogy he's making. In the same way that hands were born and tools were made, the inner selves or souls of humans are born—they're created from the spirit. But the outer selves of humans, the bodies and brains that go out into the world, are a part of nature—they were "made" by nature, and they'll ultimately disintegrate back into it, decaying to dirt. They're like "tools" the spirit uses to live and work.
- Blake's suggesting that it's funny that every farmer knows this—but people don't usually see the spiritual nature of reality, or understand what it's all about.
Every Tear from Every Eye
Becomes a Babe in Eternity.
This is caught by Females bright
And return'd to its own delight.
- These might be the toughest lines yet: it's hard to understand them without knowing anything about Blake's greater vision of reality and mythology.
- Blake's saying that, whenever you feel real sympathy or sadness and shed a tear, that tear creates something ("Becomes a Babe in Eternity") that, in the spiritual world, will become a reality—the thing you were sad about or felt sympathy for will eventually be made right or fixed: "return'd to its own delight." What we hope for or dream about on planet Earth becomes real in "Eternity."
- The weirdest part is the bit about how the "Babe" gets "caught by Females bright" before being made into a reality in the eternal world. The "Females bright" are good, mythological figures—like the Graces from Greek Mythology or a more positive version of the Fates. Their job is to keep reality functioning correctly—to make sure that there's joy on the other side of every pain.
The Bleat, the Bark, Bellow & Roar
Are Waves that Beat on Heaven's Shore.
- Now, we're finally back to animals—or, at least, to animal noises.
- This is another weird, transcendental, left-field couplet. It's sort of related to the four lines that came before it, though: Blake is saying that the emotions and powers at work on Earth reverberate in Eternity or heaven (or something like that). What happens in the world has an effect in the Beyond.
- Or, he could be saying that the passions and terrors of this world—which are symbolized by the animal noises—are like a tumultuous ocean. But heaven exists beyond that—it's the safety of the shore.
- Or, he could really mean both of those things at once.
- There's some alliteration in this couplet, too ("The Bleat, the Bark, Bellow"). Also, we get a sort of internal rhyme with "bleat" and "beat." Check out "Sound Check" for more.
The Babe that weeps the Rod beneath
Writes Revenge in realms of death.
- This couplet is pretty dark, since it deals with child abuse. The baby who gets beat with a rod (think stick or switch) causes a cosmic reaction to happen: the person who hit the baby (probably a parent) will get punished in death, experiencing the same pain that they'd caused in life. The baby will get revenge, payback.
- On the other hand, you can read the last line as meaning that the baby will die and "write revenge in realms of death" in the afterlife, preparing punishment for the abuser. But the first interpretation probably makes more sense—it's to the point.
- This is a "world in a grain of sand" moment: a horrible but common event—child abuse—causes a reaction in eternity, or the beyond.
- Again, this couplet includes another rhyme ("beneath" and "death") that isn't a rhyme today.
The Beggar's Rags, fluttering in Air,
Does to Rags the Heavens tear.
- The beggar's rags tear the heavens into rags in the same way that "the robin redbreast in a cage" puts "heaven in a rage." Little things contain bigger things—the devil is in the details. It's the "world in a grain of sand" all over again.
- In this case, a small example of poverty and suffering tears apart the sky itself. All of reality is taking part in the beggar's suffering, just like with the robin at the beginning.
The Soldier arm'd with Sword & Gun,
Palsied strikes the Summer's Sun.
- Blake was opposed to the British Empire—he didn't think that Britain had any business in controlling other countries. In fact, he supported the American Revolution for that reason. So, he has a bee in his bonnet about the military.
- It's not that Blake thinks soldiers are bad people (though he did have a run in once with a drunken soldier, who later accused Blake of treason), it's more that he views the soldier in this couplet as the pawn of other forces.
- Even though the soldier is armed with a sword and a gun, he's "palsied"—meaning paralyzed or afflicted with uncontrollable movements. This probably means that the soldier doesn't have any free will. He's the servant of those commanding him, of the people who are in charge of the Empire.
- In this state of paralysis, the soldier's striking the sun—a pretty big target (and another "world in a grain of sand" moment). Blake's probably suggesting that what the Empire is doing is a similarly blasphemous trespass against the nature of reality: if you strike the sun, you might damage the light that warms the entire globe.
The poor Man's Farthing is worth more
Than all the Gold on Afric's Shore.
- The poor man's farthing (just a quarter of a penny in the old British currency system) is worth more than all the gold on the African shore ("Afric" is the same as Africa—in case that wasn't clear) because it's worth more to him. Just like people say "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Blake's saying that value is in the eye of the beholder, too.
- This shows how much importance Blake gave to the imagination. For him, the imagination is the power that shapes reality. If you take it away, you don't really have anything—except for maybe chaos. But the imagination can make even an almost worthless piece of money worth something real (if you need it badly enough).
- Also, for the poor man, this farthing might be the difference between life and death, might get him someone's leftover crust when he'd otherwise starve. He needs it more than the colonialists who are trying to get that African gold.
One Mite wrung from the Labrer's hands
Shall buy & sell the Miser's lands:
Or, if protected from on high,
Does that whole Nation sell & buy.
- This continues with the currency theme from the last couplet. This time, Blake's saying that the tiniest amount of money a worker earns ("One Mite") is, ultimately, enough to buy and sell all the land owned by a rich miser.
- Is this true?
- Since a miser, by definition, just sits around and doesn't create anything or do anything with his or her money, a worker has more power because his or her money actually stands for something—it symbolizes the work, the creative activity. Also, there are a lot more workers than there are misers—giving them strength in numbers.
- The tiny amount of money they earn is worth more, too, because they value it more than the miser does, in a way. The fact that it's earned makes it valuable.
- If the government will protect the money its workers earn, says Blake, making sure they're not getting ripped off and that no one unfairly reduces their wages, the power of that money will be enough to control the entire nation.
- As a fan of democracy and a secret opponent of the monarchy, Blake thinks that having a decent amount of money will eventually help the workers get more power—they'll have the most say in how the country is run.
- (Since democracy did grow more powerful in England, and workers increasingly won more rights, Blake was actually pretty prophetic here.)
He who mocks the Infant's Faith
Shall be mock'd in Age & Death.
- Blake takes a quick detour from politics and economics back to spirituality. If someone makes fun of the simple faith of a child—or, apparently, infant—they're setting themselves up for a rude awakening. Basically: they're going to grow old, and weak, and die.
- Of course, that's going to happen to everyone, so how is it a punishment specifically designed for atheists?
- Well, in Blake's way of seeing things, it's worse for atheists or skeptics because they presumably don't believe in an eternal soul or eternal world. "Age and Death" sting more because there's nothing beyond them—death gets the final say. But if you believe in an eternal reality, they're not that bad, because there's something beyond them.
- We also get another imperfect rhyme here ("Faith" and "Death")—by modern standards, at least.
He who shall teach the Child to Doubt
The rotting Grave shall ne'er get out.
- This couplet runs on the same theme as the last one—faith vs. non-belief. In this case, Blake is still chiding atheists—but he doesn't actually believe in an eternal hell (which he says numerous times in his notebooks) and doesn't think an atheist won't really be able to get out of the grave.
- What Blake is doing is joking about the unbeliever's own beliefs. Someone who doesn't believe in an eternal reality actually does believe that they won't get out of the "rotting Grave," because death is final. Blake is saying that, if you have this skeptical mindset, being trapped eternally in a rotting grave is, as far as your imagination is concerned, a real possibility. Your own belief system is your "punishment," in a way.
He who respects the Infant's faith
Triumphs over Hell & Death.
- This couplet is the opposite of the two that came before it. Those were talking about the negative consequences of non-belief, but this one's praising faith.
- It's not that Blake thinks that unquestioningly believing something is totally great. It's more that he views faith as something essential to human beings. If someone tramples on an infant's faith, they're crushing something fundamentally human. But if someone respects it, then that person is headed in the right direction.
- They "triumph over hell and death" because death isn't a genuine reality for them anymore (and, in Blake's view, hell is just a state of mind). They've put their faith in this eternal order, this eternal reality.
- Also, this couplet repeats the same odd rhyme from lines 85-86.
The Child's Toys & the Old Man's Reasons
Are the Fruits of the Two seasons.
- Kids like to play with toys and older people like to play with ideas (though it's fair to say that that's not always true)—that's what Blake's saying. But he's also drawing an analogy between the two. Old philosophers fiddle around with ideas the same way kids fiddle around with toys—you move from messing around with the physical world to messing around with the intellectual world.
- The toys and reasons are, metaphorically, "the Fruits of the Two seasons" because they're the ways people enjoy themselves in those two time periods.
The Questioner, who sits so sly,
Shall never know how to Reply.
- Blake was extremely frustrated with people who tried to pick holes in spiritual things—like his own visions of the spiritual world, for instance—but had no answers themselves. In other poems, he talks about the "idiot questioner," who casually asks skeptical questions without any interest in or desire for a real answer.
- He's doing the same thing here. This mini-battle-rap is attacking people who only know how to ask questions (even smart questions) but who have no idea what's actually going on, or how life should be lived, or whether there's a spiritual world, etc.
- This couplet doesn't use any metaphors or anything, by the way—it's just a philosophical opinion (or, diss).
He who replies to words of Doubt
Doth put the Light of Knowledge out.
- This one picks up where the last couplet left off. If you do reply to the "idiot questioner's" idiot questions, you're not doing anything constructive. The questioner has no interest in spiritual realities or the soul or God or any of that stuff—he or she is just interested in asking questions and casting doubt. That's the questioner's jam—and Blake's not blaming him/her for it. He just thinks that's a totally useless way to spend your time.
- By trying to answer these questions and doubts, Blake thinks that you're putting "the light of knowledge out" because you're not contributing to the development of real knowledge in any way. You're not convincing anybody, and you're just pouring your time down the drain. It would be worth your time to do something better: to talk to people with an open mind or to, say, write epic poems about the existence of the spiritual realm (like Blake).
The Strongest Poison ever known
Came from Caesar's Laurel Crown.
- The American diplomat Henry Kissinger once said, "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac." Maybe so—but, according to Blake, it's also poison (poison, we tell ya!).
- The desire for absolute power ultimately ruins and destroys the people who get it, says Blake—either they get assassinated like Caesar or they become monstrous tyrants like Stalin and Hitler. Either way, it's terrible.
- The Romans used the "laurel crown" to crown victorious conquerors (like Caesar), by the way. But it's also used in a peaceful way, to crown people who've been victorious in other pursuits—like the arts. (Blake thinks that imagination, art, and spirituality are a pretty strong antidote to the poison of power.)
- The word "laureate" (as in "poet laureate" or "Nobel laureate") is a reference to these laurels. Bay laurels (the kind typically used) aren't really poisonous either—people frequently use them to flavor pasta sauce. (Mmm… pasta.)
- Also, "known" and "crown" form another imperfect rhyme to our modern ears.
Nought can deform the Human Race
Like the Armour's iron brace.
- This is another anti-militarism couplet, like the couplet of lines 77-78 (and sort of like the one just before at 97-98, since Caesar was the leader of a military empire). But it also has secret, inner depths.
- The basic meaning is pretty clear: when the human race gets dressed up to go on a killing spree, it looks deformed. We're not at our best when we're in destruction mode.
- According to Blake, what makes us truly human isn't our ability to conquer and destroy, but to create and love (this is the subject of the next couplet, after this one). So, the "Armour's iron brace" deforms in that sense.
- But the armor is also a good metaphor for what human selfishness and greed do—they seal you off from reality and wrap you in a personal cocoon. It prevents you from being open to whatever reality—especially spiritual reality—might be there.
When Gold & Gems adorn the Plow
To peaceful Arts shall Envy Bow.
- Blake just finished arguing that war deforms the human race. On the other hand, peaceful arts reveal what's really most human about us. The plow is a good symbol of these arts because it's creative: it helps call up plants from the earth, which then go onto nourish people.
- So, argues Blake, when people start viewing peaceful arts—like agriculture, or art and poetry (the things that Blake does)—as the main things humans do, then adorning them with gold and gems (i.e., funding them), envy itself will bow down and let peace reign.
- Blake's a little like a PBS fundraiser here—he's an artist and he's arguing that art should have a more significant and better-funded place in society. You want to see more episodes of NOVA and Downton Abbey? Then deliver the cash.
A Riddle or the Cricket's Cry
Is to Doubt a fit Reply.
- This picks up on the same idea as the couplets back in lines 93-94 and 95-96: the pointlessness of doubting for the sake of doubt. It's not wrong to be critical or questioning, Blake's saying, but you need to actually be interested in finding out the answer, as opposed to just stating that there aren't any answers.
- But before, Blake didn't really say how you should respond to doubters. He just said that trying to argue them into seeing the truth is a waste of time. Instead you should drop a riddle or a mysterious "cricket's cry"—kind of like when characters get hit with cricket noises after making a dumb joke in cartoons and sitcoms. Whip out a good haiku or a cryptic proverb—that'll show 'em. Maybe saying "A Riddle or a Cricket's Cry / Is to Doubt a fit Reply" is itself the sort of thing you should say in response. Blake might like that.
The Emmet's Inch & Eagle's Mile
Make Lame Philosophy to smile.
- This is one of the more difficult couplets. Like a lot of those surrounding it, it deals with knowledge and what we can and can't understand about reality.
- An "emmet" is an ant, actually—so it only sees what's very small and close to the ground. An eagle, on the other hand, can see for miles. In comparison, Blake says that philosophy is "lame" (even though Blake is sort of a philosopher himself) because it's just a way of thinking about things, not a way of perceiving them.
- The kind of philosophy you have is based on how much information you can take in. For instance, if humans didn't have a sense of smell, they wouldn't know that scents existed and wouldn't be able to reason about scents and compare them and so on.
- So "lame philosophy" is smiling because it's realizing its own limitations—or, because it cockily can't see those limitations, or because it's realizing how everything depends on your perspective. The last bit, about everything depending on your own perspective, is similar to the ideas of the philosopher David Hume, who wrote about the limits of human knowledge (his life overlapped with Blake's, but Blake—being more mystical than the skeptical Hume—wasn't a fan; he definitely would've found Hume's philosophy "lame").
He who Doubts from what he sees
Will ne'er believe, do what you Please.
- This is another couplet that goes well with the one before it. The ant and the eagle both see reality—more or less of it, depending—and that's how they get information. They don't reason about it, they just see it directly.
- They go from the gut.
- But a doubter—unlike these animals—questions everything, and isn't left with anything to hang his or her hat on (except for doubt itself). Blake thought that everything we could see was, in some way, part of this greater spiritual reality—so, he takes it all fairly seriously and doesn't question its basic sense. Even someone's private fantasies and dreams are, for Blake, images of reality. He says, "Everything possible to be believed is an image of truth"—but this doesn't mean that some visions and ideas aren't more true than others.
- So, Blake's saying that the doubter can't believe until he or she finally accepts that there's something beyond doubt, that there are images of truth in the human imagination and senses.
If the Sun & Moon should doubt
They'd immediately Go out.
- As far as we know, the sun and the moon aren't sitting around thinking about things and having debates about logic. They just radiate light (or, the moon reflects light, if you want to get technical).
- They don't question the basic existence of some kind of reality—they are. By saying that if the sun and moon started to doubt, they'd immediately go out, Blake is saying that people who get wrapped up in doubting everything lose their ability to really exist. They're not doing the equivalent of what the moon and sun typically do, which is shine: they're not painting pictures or practicing medicine or putting out fires or discovering new planets or tending a garden or picking up garbage or catching fish. They're just doubting—and that's a total waste of time. It puts out whatever light we have access to.
To be in a Passion you Good may do,
But no Good if a Passion is in you.
- This is one of the couplets that doesn't really have a greater metaphor—it's more proverbial, just a little wisdom to lighten up your day.
- Blake is saying that it's good to be passionate about something—he, for example, is obviously really passionate about poetry and art. There's nothing wrong with bringing a ton of energy and zeal to whatever it is you're into, but you won't be able to do any good if you're possessed by that desire or energy. If it's in control of you, and you're not in control of it, only some sort of disaster will result (or, you know, you could just end up irritating all the people around you).
The Whore & Gambler, by the State
Licenc'd, build that Nation's Fate.
- Although Blake had liberal and radical ideas about a lot of things, he apparently wasn't a huge fan of prostitution and gambling. He was fairly religious, after all.
- Blake's other poems (see "London," for example) indicate that he saw prostitution as something that was forced on women by poverty—it wasn't a fun career choice. The government licensing prostitution just shows that the government tolerates poverty and doesn't want to work against it. The same goes for gambling—instead of giving people good jobs and a decent economy, the government just gives people more opportunities to get addicted to gambling and throw their money away.
- By tolerating corruption on a small scale, with gambling and prostitution, the nation builds a corrupt state for itself. You could argue that this is a "world in a grain of sand" thing, since Blake takes a small example of something and says that it's going to affect the country on a bigger level. Little corruption is big corruption in miniature.
- (You could interpret these lines as saying they opposite—if you license prostitution and gambling, they'll become a decent part of the economy, which will help build the nation's fate in a positive way. But, peeking just ahead, the next couplet makes it clear that that's not what Blake means…)
The Harlot's cry from Street to Street
Shall weave Old England's winding Sheet.
- Blake's saying basically the same thing he was saying in the last couplet. Prostitution—or the exploitation of poor women by richer men—is a symptom of a nation's destruction.
- A "winding sheet" is the sheet wrapped around a dead body when it's being buried—so "the Harlot's cry" is going to wrap "Old England" in the same way and prepare it for its doom.
The Winner's Shout, the Loser's Curse,
Dance before dead England's Hearse.
- This couplet continues the "England biting the dust" theme.
- After the "Harlot's cry" has wrapped England in its burial shroud, the people who are winning and losing in this dog-eat-dog society will shout and curse in front of the hearse that brings England's corpse to its final resting place.
- The fact that there are so many exultant winners and bitter losers in the nation shows that this isn't a place where people are getting a fair shake, exactly—there could be more equality, humanity, and compassion in the mix.
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.
- Blake imagines the world—the physical world and the spiritual world—as a place where everyone is in either a happy or a sad state of being. But it's not static. People keep alternating between these states "every Morn & every Night." You might be born to misery, but the next day you're born to delight.
- Again, Blake doesn't believe in an eternal hell, so "Endless Night" is really a state of being or a state of mind (it's not literally "endless"). It's suffering, to put it simply.
- Blake aims for a weird, incantatory effect—by repeating "Some are born to sweet Delight" twice before ending with "Some are born to Endless Night," he heightens the dream-like feel of this whole process in a really eerie way.
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.
- Blake recycled some of these lines for a poem entitled "The Everlasting Gospel"—which helps this all make more sense. The relevant part reads:
This life's five windows of the soul
Distorts the Heavens from pole to pole
And leads you to believe a lie
When you see with, not thro' the eye
That was born in a night to perish in a night
When the soul slept in beams of light.
- The "five windows of the soul" are the five senses. They're the way the soul experiences the world. So what Blake's saying in this other poem is the same thing he's saying here: the physical senses don't give us any real information about reality—at least not about spiritual reality.
- The truth can only be beheld mystically, or poetically, through the imagination and the revelations it gives. In order to see what's really going on, you need to see "through" your eyes—using the soul and imagination that exist behind them—and not just "with" them.
- Blake says that the physical eyes were "Born in a Night to Perish in a Night"—while the soul is sleeping "in Beams of Light," since it can never die and has only forgotten its true identity, believing itself to be a physical body instead of a spiritual being.
- The "Born in a Night to Perish in a Night" line is cribbed from the Book of Jonah, where God describes a bush that shelters Jonah as being "born in a night to perish in a night" (in the King James Version). Blake uses it to describe everything that's part of the material world—including our own physical eyes—and not part of the spiritual world beyond. You could say that the material world is the same as the "Night" in which the physical eye exists: it's too dark for it to see the eternal realities.
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.
- These four lines directly flow from the previous four lines. If the material world we all live in is the same as the "night" where the poor souls (human beings and other living things) are dwelling, then God appears to us (according to Blake) as the little bit of light we're able to receive. God is like the light from the sun, which makes the material world visible instead of completely dark.
- But, Blake says, when you get into the spiritual world (of which Blake had visions), God doesn't appear as beams of light anymore (which are just a mild reflection of what God really is), but as the ultimate human being: Jesus (or, Jesus as Blake understood him). The "realms of day" are the eternal world—the opposite of the material night world.
- Blake also creates the effect of an incantation as the poem ends—and in the four lines just before. He repeats "light" and "night" in a way that has a sort of powerful, possibly hypnotizing feel as the poem wraps up.