It’s fascinating watch my students struggle with Blake’s poetry. You can almost see some of them actually grapple with the man, flinging him onto the ground in frustration as they try and make sense of the poetry, the images, the contexts he arose from. Yes, they are struggling. They are finding him difficult. And it’s difficult for me too teaching them Blake. The temptation is to step in and say: “Well, this poem MEANS this. Here’s a ready made explanation for you, all neatly tied up in a bundle, away you go and write a nice essay on him.” I know a huge amount about Blake, but that’s not important, what’s important is what my students know and how they acquire their knowledge about him. They need to be told to read him by themselves and work out their own meanings for him, they need to read critical commentaries on him by themselves and try and work out how critics’ views can used in their own essays and work.
Some students are fine with it; they are used to finding work difficult. There are three students who are doing A Level Art in one of the classes, and as soon as they realised that Blake was an artist, they began to make sense of him. I watched them today annotate a critical commentary on his life and work published by OCR which can be found here. Initially, they found the academic tone of the commentary hard to deal with, particularly without a teacher (me) explaining it all for them. One student asked me what “spiritual non-conformist” meant, I answered by asking her what she thought it meant. After some thought, she said it was someone who didn’t conform to the normal religion. Yes! I said, you’ve got it. Did she need me to tell her? No, she didn’t. After I explained to her and her group that I wanted them to annotate the text, ask questions, and take notes on what might be relevant for them, they started to “get it”; you could see the lights go on. They started asking all the questions that were nagging them: “If Blake rejected Christianity, why does he use so much Christian imagery? Why did he print his own books? Why was he never imprisoned for his views?” And so on.
My other class seemed to be on task with writing about the poems, but one student was really, really struggling. “I just don’t get it. We’ve got to do a piece of coursework on this in a few weeks and I just don’t understand ANY of the poems!” He was looking at the Clod and Pebble, for which they are very few notes on Gradesaver etc. I found myself getting a bit sharp with him because he really kept saying he didn’t get it, and I felt blaming me. “Why can’t you just explain all of them to us?” he said. I replied that I wanted him to have a go at working it out for himself. I asked him to read the first verse of the Clod and the Pebble to me and explain the lines. He did so, and was really able to say what the lines meant: they talk about how people who really love care for other people more than themselves. The second verse though totally flummoxed him because a “Clod of Clay” was speaking. First, he didn’t know what a “clod” was! Second, after I told him about clods, he found it very difficult to comprehend how Clod of Clay could speak. What was the point? I realised that this was at the root of the problems that many students were having with the poems; they, so used to having everything neatly explained to them, found living with the uncertainty and instability of Blake’s symbolism very disturbing. Blake frequently provokes more questions than answers; he can’t easily be “bundled up” into a “message of meaning”. And yet, there are clear ideas lurking within the poems; ideas that argue for generosity of spirit, openness of interpretation; the discourses within the poems powerfully argue against restrictive, regulatory ways of thinking.
However, within the echelons of Blake research, there are a number of critics who argue that Blake needs to be read in a “closed” fashion, that one can “pin down” his symbolism to certain mystical or social meanings, particularly if you look at the illustrations as well. ‘The Tyger’ generates the most controversy because it’s so popular and yet so elusive in meaning. Here’s one critic who argues that you can only understand it if you look carefully at the illustration, which apparently is of a tiger smiling.
Blake is forcing my students to think for themselves; they are learning so much by looking in depth at his poems; learning to research, to grapple with poetry written in a variety of styles, learning how to work out what something means when they don’t fully understand it straightaway.