This month I wanted to challenge myself a little bit and discuss a poem by William Blake. Although I don’t think Blake is an incredibly difficult poet to understand, his work has a lot of scholarship attached to it, which makes him intimidating to read. William Blake is one of the most significant poets of the English language, but did not achieve that status until after his death. A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to learn more about him and his poetics, and I did a little reading. Two books I found that were very helpful were Peter Marshall’s William Blake: Visionary Anarchist (1988) and Marsha Keith Schuchard’s William Blake’s Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision (2006). Marshall’s book was especially helpful because he places Blake within the realm of anarchism and I identify as anarchist, so it made him and his work more accessible to me. I do think that Blake was an unconscious anarchist, given the fact that the time and place he lived and worked in (London, between the 18th and 19th centuries) did not allow him to push his radical ideas further. Like Marshall, I believe that Blake would have eventually come to the conclusion that he was anarchist, if he’d been in the right environment. With all that being said, I want to talk about Blake’s poem “The Crystal Cabinet” and I want to keep the biographical/critical context to a minimum, but there is a little bit of context necessary.
I did some light research on the poem and discovered that it was never officially published by Blake. It was part of a small manuscript that had no title, but eventually came to be known as The Pickering Manuscript, which was first published in 1866—about forty years after Blake’s death. The poem does seem to apply some of Blake’s mystical ideas about life and death, which I won’t go into here, but just wanted to make readers aware that Blake was operating poetically on his own spiritual concepts (which he did in most of his work, poetic and artistic). There is also a possible reference to Locke in the poem, who he was engaged with intellectually through his writings. There is a literal reference (it will be obvious once we start looking at the poem), and a metaphorical one: the cabinet. Locke talked about the mind as being an empty cabinet, and after doing a little research, I feel pretty confident that Blake more than likely was playing with that concept in this poem. The book of poems I’m using is called Great English Poets: William Blake (1986) which was edited by Peter Porter. It’s a small hardback book that also includes some of Blake’s artwork along with the poems and a short introduction by Porter. I want to briefly quote Porter here for reasons that will be made clearer later: “His status as chief prophet and guide to the ‘Flower Children’ and ‘hippies’ of the sixties, however, tells us much about his abiding excitement as an original and inspiring writer. Put simply, William Blake’s poetry offers the reader a way through the daunting thickets of religious dogma and establishment orthodoxy to the idea of personal revelation, to an intense experience of life perceived by our senses and our understanding.” “The Crystal Cabinet” is a perfect example of why Blake became so popular during the counterculture movement of the sixties and why he is not just a significant lyrical English poet, but a radical lyrical English poet. Here are the first three stanzas of the poem:
The Maiden caught me in the Wild,
Where I was dancing merrily:
She put me into her Cabinet,
And Lock’d me up with a golden Key.
This Cabinet is form’d of Gold
And Pearl & Crystal shining bright,
And within it opens into a World,
And a little lovely Moony Night.
Another England there I saw,
Another London with its Tower,
Another Thames & other Hills
And another pleasant Surrey Bower.
These three stanzas set the scene of the poem, which exists within another dimension: the Maiden’s dimension. This poem could be classified as feminist because the Maiden figures prominently as the force behind the speaker coming into both sexual and metaphysical awareness. If we were to translate this poem into plainspeak, it would read something like this: I met a woman who opened up my world in ways I could never have imagined.
Here are the next three stanzas:
Another Maiden like herself,
Translucent, lovely, shining clear,
Threefold each in the other clos’d:
O what a pleasant trembling fear!
O what a smile, a threefold Smile,
Fill’d me that like a flame I burn’d:
I bent to Kiss the lovely Maid,
And found a Threefold Kiss return’d.
I strove to seize the inmost Form,
With ardor fierce & hands of flame,
But burst the Crystal Cabinet
And like a Weeping Babe became:
There is one more stanza after this, but I wanted to talk about the quick progression of desire that characterizes these three stanzas: an altered version of the Maiden shows up and they share a passionate kiss. Then, the speaker becomes aroused and wants more: “I strove to seize the inmost Form / With ardor fierce & hands of flame.” However, his lust causes the crystal cabinet to “burst.” Not only is this poem feminist because the female figure serves as the focal point of sexual liberation for the speaker, but it is also erotic in that the speaker is so turned on by the Maiden that he can’t even bring his sexual desires to a satisfying climax. He has too much passion within him, which causes him to not only lose his grip on the alternate dimension (that exists inside the cabinet), but to return to a starker version of reality:
A weeping Babe upon the wild,
And Weeping Woman pale reclin’d.
And in the outward air again
I fill’d with woes the passing Wind.
He and the Maiden, who is now a Weeping Woman, are both crying, and there is nothing but the wild and the wind running through the moment.
I found “The Crystal Cabinet” to be one of Blake’s more metaphorically complex poems in this short collection because of how much work the cabinet and the Maiden are doing in the poem. The poem is from a first-person perspective, but so much weight seems to be placed on the idea of sexual liberation from a feminine perspective. The speaker is not only entranced by his new vision, but by the passion that builds up between him and his female love interest. What is also interesting is the fact that it was unexpected: “The Maiden caught me in the Wild.” The speaker was not planning to fall in love and was certainly not planning to fall into passionate love. The concepts of love, femininity, passion, and eroticism, along with metaphysical vision would very much appeal to sixties counterculture groups because of its focus on free, erotic love. However, the ending of the poem is cautionary because it explicitly warns readers that too much passion can kill the love altogether. I found this to be a brilliant way to end the poem because it advocates for a kind of love that is strong and passionate, but controlled. If readers were to look at this poem from an anarchist perspective, the message would be something like this: do what feels good to you, but exercise common sense.
I also wanted to challenge myself musically this month and talk about Bob Dylan. Like Blake, Dylan can feel intimidating to talk about, because he is an incredibly important singer/songwriter, and he also has plenty of scholarship attached to him. I never really listened to Bob Dylan consciously, but I have always been aware of his music. Interestingly enough, there is one song of his in particular that I really love: “The Man in Me.” However, I didn’t know it was Bob Dylan’s song until a couple of months ago when I was doing research for my favorite film The Big Lebowski. “The Man in Me” is one of the main songs of the film; I’d been hearing it for years and had no clue that it was Dylan. This prompted me to start listening to Bob Dylan, which caused me to realize the error of my ways: I should’ve been listening to him sooner. The song is off of his eleventh studio album New Morning (1970) and it consists of four verses and a mellow, rhythmic, upbeat melody. When the song starts, the main melody and the primary instruments— piano, bass, light percussion—take center stage along with Dylan who sings “La-La” repetitively along with the rhythm of the song in a very free-spirited way. Here are the first two verses:
The man in me will do nearly any task
And as for compensation, there’s little he would ask
Take a woman like you
To get through to the man in me
Storm clouds are raging all around my door
I think to myself I might not take it anymore
Take a woman like your kind
To find the man in me
The reason why I wasn’t able to recognize this as a Dylan song is because his singing style here is different: it’s grittier and more rhythmic in nature. His vocals seem to almost hum along with the melody of the song. Lyrically, this song is about a man who is addressing a woman that knows him in ways he didn’t realize he could be known, and this is a marvel to him. It’s a romantic song, but the lyricist is very earthy. The song shifts slightly for the third verse, which could also act as a chorus. This is where Dylan croons a bit. Here it is, along with the final verse:
But oh, what a wonderful feeling
Just to know that you are near
Sets my heart a-reeling
From my toes up to my ears
The man in me will hide sometimes to keep from being seen
But that’s just because he doesn’t want to turn into some machine
Take a woman like you
To get through to the man in me
In this final verse, Dylan gets creative: the first two lines are incredibly long, but he manages to sing them really well with the melody. From a lyrical perspective, these two lines really help to categorize the lyricist as being someone who is against the grain socially but is not necessarily open about it: “The man in me will hide sometimes to keep from being seen / But that’s just because he doesn’t want to turn into some machine.” These lines are where he opens up to a woman who more than likely already knows this about him, so the last two lines: “Take a woman like you / To get through to the man in me” which he already sang more than once in different variations, holds poignant weight because they speak the truth more explicitly: you know me; I’m quiet and I’m radical. After the last verse, Dylan brings the “La-La” singing back in, and the song ends with a nice jam vibe to it as the piano becomes more pronounced, accompanied by electric and acoustic guitars and stronger percussion.
I do feel like for me, this song is definitely informed by The Big Lebowski; my experience of hearing the song and knowing that film incredibly well are inevitably linked. However, I do feel like that film highlights what’s underneath the surface of “The Man in Me”: a counterculture male who finds himself known by a woman who affects him emotionally. This song is characterized by what it doesn’t say just as much as by what it does say, and it does seek to communicate love from a humble, but gritty masculine perspective. After spending some time with “The Man in Me” with the conscious knowledge that it is Bob Dylan’s song, and hearing some of his other songs, I find him to be incredibly down-to-earth, straightforward, and modest as a songwriter, and can say with good confidence that I am now a Dylan fan.
There are a couple of things that link William Blake and Bob Dylan. The most obvious one is their influence on the sixties counterculture movement. But another element that links them is the ballad. “The Crystal Cabinet” takes on the form of a ballad and explores love in creative ways. “The Man in Me” also takes on the ballad form: each verse is a quatrain, and the last verse subverts it a bit with those two longer lines. The Dylan song, like the Blake poem, explore love through a masculine voice that is both surprised and humbled by the experience of being known by a woman on a deeper level. Like the Blake poem, “The Man in Me” contains a feminist quality to it: the lyricist is addressing a female who has managed to find him in ways that he didn’t think he could be found. For me, there is one other thing that links William Blake and Bob Dylan: Allen Ginsberg. He was influenced heavily by Blake and he also had a long friendship with Dylan. He was an incredibly important counterculture figure of the sixties and I would be hard-pressed to talk about Blake and Dylan without mentioning Ginsberg: he was the bridge that connected radical lyricism and protest. I would encourage readers to read William Blake and listen to Bob Dylan and see what kind of feelings emerge. I think the poet and the musician embody sixties counterculture in such a way that makes it clear that it was a legitimate movement that eventually became consumed by its unfortunate commercialization. And although it wasn’t Blake’s intention to influence radical culture in the sixties, the fact that his work resonated with so many people during that time is proof of his radical lyricism that often goes unnoticed when he is only read in relation to the time period that he was living in. That’s why reading him in conjunction with Dylan is helpful; those radical elements become more pronounced and can be appreciated all the more because he was radical in the 18th and 19th centuries. It just goes to show that radical lyrical poetry can become timeless. So, if readers are seeking a way to achieve timelessness through radical art, William Blake and Bob Dylan are good places to start.
December 5, 2022