Friday, July 07, 2017

To Tirzah

When I first read William Blake, as a teenager, the connection was immediate and visceral. This was my man: the only god in the literary pantheon (I took the dignity of the canon much more seriously back then than I do now) who understood the world as I did, and who saw himself as the forerunner of a new people, just as I did. My heart was full of revolutionary nonsense and mystical passion: I loved a lot of writers I subsequently came to think silly.

I never came to think Blake silly. He is not silly. His absolute rejection of cruelty and paltering resonates with me as strongly as ever, as does his commitment to the clear and boldly drawn line. Hier stehe Ich, Ich kann nicht anders.

But there was one poem that came always as a slap in the face. It was "To Tirzah," and it was strangely out of keeping with the other Songs, a throwback to the sort of Christianity he otherwise rejected, the Christianity of Old Nobodaddy who hated the body, hated women, hated reproduction:

Thou, mother of my mortal part,
With cruelty didst mould my heart,
And with false self-deceiving tears
Didst bind my nostrils, eyes, and ears, 
Didst close my tongue in senseless clay,
And me to mortal life betray.
The death of Jesus set me free:
Then what have I to do with thee?

There must be some hidden message, some history I didn't know, I thought. I read it carefully -- I read everything carefully in those days, when the world was young, alas! -- and then steered around it. I have probably every other poem from the Songs by heart: but I had to go and look up the text of Tirzah, just now.

It has a reputation, says Wikipedia, as a difficult poem. It's not a difficult poem at all: it's just a poem that most of us would rather not hear. It's a categorical, contemptuous dismissal of his mother.

I can't help but think, at this distance, that it was precisely this poem -- though I consciously rejected it -- that sealed my intimacy with William. I too found myself helplessly bound to a person whose love threatened to choke and silence me, who seemed determined to bind me to the low horizons of worldly desire. Her heart's desire was to see me pluming myself in an expensive suit: was this what I had been born for? No. No, there had to be something beyond that.

I hate the poem. All the more in this time, when America is wracked by a childish tantrum of over-mothered, over-schooled boys who never got their time playing in the mud. It's dangerous, wrong, ungrateful, stupid. It cannot nor it will not come to good.

Nevertheless. There it is: manifestly wrong, self-contradictory, irreconcilable; and an indelible inheritance.

1 comment:

am said...


"If you're reading this open letter ... " (posted a few hours ago)

Not silly.