Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Garden of Delight



Somewhere, I tell myself, there is a line in the collected poetry of William Blake that reads, "It is a garden of delight."
It's a moist day, but not quite raining, when I finish work at my desk and get myself outdoors. After a couple of wettish days, and another week of lengthening light, all the space between the plans is suddenly filled with green. Weeds force their way in, wherever they can, but lushness is all.
I feel like I'm in a rain forest. It's a garden of delight, I say to myself, exulting in all that green and varied growth. Somewhere, I think, in one of his poems William Blake has written the line "It is a garden of delight." And my memory is channeling it now under the stimulus of a moist spring day.
The trouble is I'm wrong. Blake never wrote "It is a garden of delight."
I search for the line in Blake's poems in the anthologies I've always used and which sum up my acquaintance with his poetry. It's not there.
I'm hearing his muisc, I finally realize, but I'm making up the words.
I find the line whose rhythm and urgency I am almost certainly hearing -- but misremembering -- in my thoughts. It comes in a poem called "Holy Thursday (II)" in which Blake questions the existence of hunger and misery "In a rich and fruitful land." The poem is one of the best known of his group of poems called "Songs of Experience" -- it's number two (II) because Blake wrote a poem with the same title in "Songs of Innocence." And the "Songs of Experience" have nothing to do with gardens or delight.
"And so many children poor?" the poem demands of the 1790s England he is writing of, before concluding the second stanza with this harrowing line:
"It is a land of poverty."
The concise, assertive, forward-thrusting movement of this line has stayed in my mind year after year, decade after decade, since encountering it in graduate school.
My memory has simply borrowed the aural bones of this line for purposes of my own. It's strong simple address is a repudiation of things as they are in Blake's  poem, as befits the theme of his "world of experience" in which our childish embrace of existence (in "innocence") is shocked and overturned by worldly experience. "Experience" is the Buddha's journey into the world of human suffering.
He concludes the third stanza with a similarly structured line: "It is eternal winter there."
I've turned the same construction -- a concise eight-syllable iambic line -- to offer a completely opposite image of the world: "a garden of delight."
A moment's review of his poems shows me how off base I am. Blake doesn't celebrate nature in this naive way some of us cling to. Nature, as we experience it in this fallen world, isn't Blake's subject -- religion is, and he invents his own.
But the words "garden" and "delight" do appear in his poems. His poem "The Lamb" offers the image of "clothing of delight." In "The Book of Thel," another poem that sets innocence and experience as contrairies, the speaker alludes to the original garden of Genesis and its creator God, referring to the voice "Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time." Garden is a symbol for Blake, not a real place where you pull weeds, celebrate flowers, and exult in nature's annual resurgence. In another of his disquieting visions of experience, the narrator of "The Garden of Love" finds the garden "filled with graves,/ And tombstones where flowers should be."
In other poems, of the sort the critics call prophetic, Blake uses garden and nature imagery to symbolize human potential, calling on us to build a "New Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land."
That's the place I'm celebrating when I'm taken out of myself: "a garden of delight."
I have no problem with mis-remembering a line of poetry. In fact, realizing what my memory has done with something I've read (many times) over the years gives me an insight into how the mind works. On a moist and misty afternoon, everything thick and wet after a spell of gentle rain, I'm imagining a rain forest feeling. I've never been to a rain forest. But that's the point: I'm imagining it.
Blake believed that the imagination is the primary human faculty. Lots of scientists are coming around to the same view, particularly those who study how "consciousness" works. We imagine our world.
Blake's poetry does not spend a lot of time in real, actual gardens. Even his art -- an engraver, he illustrated all his poems -- deals with them symbolically.
But real gardens, where nature and human beings meet, are great places to grow the imagination. And great poets supply the words, rough hew them as we may.