Essays and Criticism
William Blake's Influence on Milosz
In his book The Land of Ulro (1984), Milosz reveals his high regard for the English romantic poet William Blake (1757–1827). Milosz first discovered Blake’s poetry in Warsaw during World War II. Working as a janitor at the university library, which was closed to the public, he taught himself English and read a few of Blake’s poems that he found in an anthology. Milosz writes, “In those times and in that landscape so inhospitable to a child’s awe before the miraculous, Blake restored to me my earlier raptures, perhaps to my true vocation, that of lover.”
Later in his life, Milosz would study Blake’s work, including his complex mythology, more deeply. Although he comments that he borrowed little from Blake in terms of literary technique, the influence Blake had on him is clear from the poems he wrote in wartime Warsaw, including “Song of a Citizen.” Although Milosz does not say which of Blake’s poems he read, it is likely that they were some of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794), which were the best known of Blake’s poems at the time and were frequently anthologized.
Blake’s Songs of Innocence are short lyric poems written from the point of view of a child’s innocent perceptions. The world is illumined by the light of God, and everything is under the divine protection. The flavor of Blake’s Songs is echoed by Milosz in his cycle of twenty poems entitled “The World,” which he wrote in 1943—the time he was also reading Blake. These are deliberately simple poems that express a serene faith in the order and beauty of the world. Like Blake’s Songs, their simplicity of tone and diction make some of them resemble nursery rhymes. Milosz subtitled the cycle “A Naïve Poem.”
Two of these poems, “Fear” and “Recovery,” are clearly modeled on Blake’s Songs, particularly “The Little Boy Lost” and “The Little Boy Found.” In “Fear,” a little boy is lost in a frightening dark forest at night. He calls out, “Where are you, Father? The night has no end. / From now on darkness will last for ever.” In the companion poem, “Recovery,” the father appears and comforts his son as the darkness and fog give way to dawn. Similarly, in Blake’s “The Little Boy Lost” a frightened boy loses his father in a dark fen at night; in “The Little Boy Found,” God appears like his father in white and rescues him.
If the poems in “The World” are Milosz’s “songs of innocence,” the cycle of six poems entitled “Voices of Poor People,” as well as several other poems Milosz wrote in Warsaw in 1943 and 1944, form his “songs of experience.” These are darker poems that face the reality of suffering and the terrible cruelties that exist in the world. Blake subtitled Songs of Innocence and of Experience, “Shewing the two contrary states of the human soul,” and the epigram is appropriate, too, for Milosz’s contrasting perspectives in “The World” and “Voices of Poor People.” The latter collection, which includes “Song of a Citizen” provides a series of snapshots of what one man saw, felt, and thought in that dark period of Polish, and European, history.
One such thought concerned the role of poetry and the poet. Some critics argue that in the last stanzas of “Song of a Citizen,” for example, the poet questions his vocation, as he realizes that he may never fulfill the poetic dreams and ambitions of his youth. This implicit questioning of what poetry can accomplish becomes the primary theme of “The Poor Poet,” one of the poems in “Voices of Poor People.” It is a dramatic monologue that traces the evolution of the poet’s career. His early poems were joyful, but since then he has seen too much of the world’s miseries and now openly states that poetry is unrelated to real life and, therefore, of no use to humanity:
I poise the pen and it puts forth twigs and leaves, it
is covered with blossoms
And the scent of that tree is impudent, for there, on
the real earth,
Such trees do not grow, and like an insult
To suffering humanity is the scent of that tree.
The same theme is stated more bluntly in the poem “Dedication,” which, although not part of the “Voices” cycle, was...
(The entire section is 1773 words.)