Sunday, 15 April 2012

Short measures (i): William Blake and Eternity’s Sunrise

                 In small proportions we just beauties see
                 And in short measures, Life may perfect be.
                                                                            Ben Jonson

‘Short measures’ – here, short poems. I’m going to start an occasional series in which I discuss very short poems. No more than eight lines, often fewer. Perhaps ten but certainly shorter than a sonnet, sometimes much shorter. Translations allowed, and suggestions welcomed.

What is there to say about a poem so short it may be no more than a couple of lines? What can such a poem add to the conversation between poems, poets and readers of poetry – a conversation that goes backwards and forwards across time and cultures? I’m starting with a poem by William Blake: ‘Eternity’ in four lines.

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the wingéd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

This quatrain, with its two pairs of rhyming lines, works by contrasts. It balances negatives against positives: the life-denying destructiveness of a selfish act set against the reward of a selfless gesture. What is ‘a joy’, however? To King Lear dividing his kingdom among his daughters, his favourite child Cordelia is ‘our joy’, the person who most gladdens his heart. And when Bassanio selects the lead casket in The Merchant of Venice, hoping to win Portia, he says, ‘Here choose I, joy be the consequence.’

Poets a generation later than Blake tended to see joy not necessarily embodied in a person: to Keats, ‘a thing of beauty is a joy forever’; when Wordsworth found himself ‘Surprised by joy’ he was ‘impatient as the wind … to share the transport’. Importantly, he does not wish to keep the joy to himself: ‘I turned to thee’. Nor did Byron in Childe Harold: on the Eve of Waterloo, the cry goes up, ‘On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined!’

Byron is here using ‘joy’ in the same way as Macbeth at his banquet, proposing a toast ‘to the general joy of the whole table’. Blake’s joy, though, even though it is not specified, is a specific thing (‘a joy … the joy’) with a life of its own.  Any attempt to imprison the ‘wingéd life’, to keep it for oneself, deserves to be condemned. We remember the lines from ‘Auguries of Innocence’:

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a rage.

Joy, Blake suggests, is fleeting: the wingéd life is always in flight, and the trick is not to capture, but kiss it – to share it and help it on its way. Nearer to our own time, at the end of the 1930s, Louis MacNeice makes this point in ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’: ‘You cannot cage the minute / Within its nets of gold’. And here is Auden:

Moments of happiness do not come often,
Opportunity’s easy to miss.
O let us seize them, of all their joys squeeze them,
For tomorrow will come when none may kiss.

Here, however, such carpe diem anxiety comes dangerously close to what Blake condemns: squeezing all the joy out of a rare moment of happiness is as bad as binding it to oneself. And in Auden’s lines (which come originally from his 1936 play The Ascent of F6) anxiety is heightened by the fear of tomorrow – specifically, the fear of looming war; existentially, the fear of death. This empty tomorrow recalls the ‘deserts of vast eternity’ in Andrew Marvell’s poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’, but this is a very different eternity from Blake’s. In his climactic phrase ‘eternity’s sunrise’, Blake juxtaposes against empty endlessness – what Thomas Hardy called ‘wan wistlessness’ – the promise of hopefulness. Living in Eternity’s sunrise is not a definition of joy (though it could be), it’s the reward for acknowledging, but not appropriating, joy.

For Wordsworth, just after Blake, sunrise is a mystical and transformative experience: ‘Ne’er saw I, never felt a calm so deep,’ he recalls after watching from Westminster Bridge the sun rising over London. Blake’s sunrise, too, is not just a spectacle, it is all-involving. To ‘live in’ eternity’s sunrise is to become, the poet implies, a part of the activity of continuous creation: to cite Wordsworth again, it is to have a

                                                 sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused ….
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. (from ‘Tintern Abbey’)

Wordsworth is here the great interpreter, with his stately piling up in blank verse of phrases, clauses and repetitions - four ‘all’s in two lines. Blake by contrast condenses ‘Eternity’ (the title of his poem) into a single verse, using a metrical form that at first seems almost like a nursery rhyme. The obvious way to scan the poem would go like this:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the wingéd life destroy,
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

Four ploddingly predictable stresses per line dull the sense of the poem. It is no small part of Blake’s artistry that this short piece invites the reader to think, and re-think, what might be a better way to let the lines speak. I don’t expect you to agree, but here is my suggestion:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the wingéd life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun-rise.

The adjacent stressing of flies / lives, emphasized by the running on from one line to the next, creates a momentum that carries the poem towards its climax. By a nice metrical irony, Blake allows us no time to linger over eternity:  it’s on the final word of the poem he wants us to dwell, sun-rise - a word of two stresses and infinite promise.

Adrian Barlow

[illustration: William Blake, from an engraving of a portrait by Thomas Phillips (1802)

[photo by Faye Steer. See Truly a Well-wrought Urn

My new book, Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning, has now been published by Lutterworth Press. For details and first reviews, click here.


  1. I'd like to suggest Judith Wright's ten-line poem, 'Portrait'. It's a lovely, thought-provoking and moving poem that has such insight into life and love.

  2. This is a very interesting topic. However, I feel it is much too short, as most of the works mentioned here were only touched on. When time allows it, perhaps you may expound further into each work? I am particularly interested in poet William Blake's 'Eternity'. It is such a short piece laden with layers upon layers of meaning. Here in our time we have poets trying desperately to compose line after line that fill up volumes of one poem, yet in a short measure, to borrow your title, these masters like Blake show the beauty that lies in simplicity.

  3. Dear literarycat, I'm very pleased you enjoyed this blog about William Blake's 'Eternity'. I try to keep each post to about 1000 words, but I am interested in your idea of developing this one into a longer piece.

    Adrian Barlow

  4. A full text for Eternity is found at


  6. The poems of Blake are remarkable for their vivid description on the inconsistencies of the society. Each poem of Blake has to be analyzed only in the light of this core philosophy. Thanks for sharing it.
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