Category Archives: William Blake

“What have you done for others?”

 

 

“You probably know that I am [doing volunteer work]. _______ has done numerous, exceedingly generous activities to help the disadvantaged. Can you name one thing you have ACTIVELY done to help the needy? …What have your contributions to society been? … What have YOU done for others?”

 

 

— email to me from a relative, July 2018

 

 
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And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. ….

 

— Matthew 5-6 (The Sermon on the Mount)

 

 

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He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars.

— William Blake, Jerusalem

 

 

 

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The full Blake passage reads:

 

Labour well the Minute Particulars: attend to the Little Ones;
And those who are in misery cannot remain so long,
If we do but our duty: labour well the teeming Earth.…
He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars.
General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer;
For Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars,
And not in generalizing Demonstrations of the Rational Power:
The Infinite alone resides in Definite and Determinate Identity.

 

T. S. Eliot (who, unaccountably, found fault with this passage) wrote that “Blake was endowed with a capacity for considerable understanding of human nature.” (T. S. Eliot, “Blake”; in The Sacred Wood: Essays On Poetry And Criticism). So true. And, in my opinion, Blake never said anything more true than He who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars. These words are seared into my consciousness, and they greatly influenced my thinking.

 

 

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I do not have a preference for organized charities (or charity). Though I do not, and one should not, find fault with them a priori, or with those who volunteer or donate. They may be supported for reasons, partly, of self-interest, or to make someone look good, say, in their public profile or on a resume or college application. Note that I said they “may be.”

I prefer to do good in minute particulars. In little ways. I am always trying to. In my immediate environment. Where I live. Among friends and friends of friends or relatives. And, mostly, for people whom I encounter anonymously in the City.

There is no point in my giving particulars — it would not be true to the spirit of what is said above.

And, by the way, I fully agree with what Blake wrote – the thrust of the entire passage quoted above — developing his idea of particular versus general good more fully: “General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer; … / And not in generalizing Demonstrations of the Rational Power: / The Infinite alone resides in Definite and Determinate Identity.”

Much of what is done by social engineers and reformers – supposedly for amelioration of conditions of the oppressed – actually is done with the most mean spirited intentions one can conceive of, and actually does harm to individuals, as I have shown in many of my posts.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 2019

J’accuse…!

 

 

A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A Dove house filld with Doves & Pigeons
Shudders Hell thr’ all its regions
A dog starvd at his Masters Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State
A Horse misusd upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fibre from the Brain does tear.

 

— William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

 

 

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When most people get indignant about government policies and actions, it’s usually against a leader such as Trump or Nixon whom they hate, or perhaps Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War.

Or a present or past dictator or tyrant. Their regime or administration. Their policies.

But, as William Blake has shown. Epigrammatically, emphatically. What most offends the moral sense, what tears a fiber from the brain is not policy or programs. As much as to contemplate the suffering of INDIVIDUALS, inflicted upon them by the state. Meaning they can’t prevent it, and usually have no recourse.

This includes the prisoners in our inhumane, horrible prison system – most of them. Guantanamo detainees. Offenses against human decency and Christian norms observable in the USA today. And, similar horrors abroad or in the days of yore. Such as political prisoners being tortured in Syrian jails and held and perhaps tortured elsewhere. The Gulag. Internment and concentration camps. The Killing Fields. And ….

I can’t resist preaching. I feel that I am right. Be thou like Christ. Love man. Not like the Pharisees. Obsessed with finding rulebreakers.

People seem to have for the most part moved on to the next issue du jour. The Mueller probe and the misdeeds of the Trump administration. The latest developments and revelations.

Believe me, these issues pale by comparison and will seem a lot less important at a future date.

What about the roughly 700 children who were separated from their parents at the border and have still not been reunified with those parents by the administration, according to a CNN report from five days ago (this figure includes more than 40 children who are 4 years old and younger)? And, the children who have suffered psychological harm from being torn from their parents and detained?

The separation of migrant families — of parents from children, and children from parents — under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy towards migrants is a crime against humanity. Or, to use another generic term, a human rights abuse. Pure and simple.

 

— Roger W. Smith

  August 29, 2018

the particular matters; quotes from famous authors

 

 

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”

— William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

 

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

— William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

 

“To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit — General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess.”

— William Blake, Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses

 

“AND many conversèd on these things as they labour’d at the furrow, Saying: ‘It is better to prevent misery than to release from misery; It is better to prevent error than to forgive the criminal. Labour well the Minute Particulars: attend to the Little Ones; And those who are in misery cannot remain so long, If we do but our duty: labour well the teeming Earth.… He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer; For Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars, And not in generalizing Demonstrations of the Rational Power: The Infinite alone resides in Definite and Determinate Identity. Establishment of Truth depends on destruction of Falsehood continually, On Circumcision, not on Virginity, O Reasoners of Albion!”

— William Blake, “Jerusalem”

 

 

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”Dear Hugo, you must write to me often as you can, & not delay it, your letters are very dear to me. Did you see my newspaper letter in N Y Times of Sunday Oct 4? About my dear comrade Bloom, is he still out in Pleasant Valley? Does he meet you often? Do you & the fellows meet at Gray’s or any where? O Hugo, I wish I could hear with you the current opera – I saw Devereux in the N Y papers of Monday announced for that night, & I knew in all probability you would be there – tell me how it goes – only don’t run away with that theme & occupy too much of your letter with it – but tell me mainly about all my dear friends, & every little personal item, & what you all do, & say &c.”

— Walt Whitman, letter to Hugo Fritsch, dated Washington, DC, October 8, 1863; from Selected Letters of Walt Whitman

 

 

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“[I]n these lives of ours, tender little acts do more to bind hearts together than great deeds or heroic words. …”

— Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience

 

 

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“… I particularly liked your manner of explanation when you lowered your voice and spoke quietly of the elements that interest us both, the humane particulars of realization and communication.”

— William Carlos Williams, letter to Kenneth Burke, November 10, 1945

 

 

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“The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnified world in itself.”

— Henry Miller, Plexus (New York: Grove Press, 1965, pg. 53)

 

 

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“In the ordinary is the extraordinary. In the particular is the universal.”

— Frank Delaney (1942–2017), Irish novelist, journalist and broadcaster; blog post re James Joyce’s Ulysses

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   December 2015; updated June 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Immersing Oneself Is To Be Desired

 

 

If you trap the moment before it’s ripe,
The tears of repentance you’ll certainly wipe;
But if once you let the ripe moment go
You can never wipe off the tears of woe.

 

— William Blake, “If You Trap the Moment,” from the poet’s notebook

 

 

 

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I have had several experiences over the past couple of weeks that have no obvious relation to one another.

Yet, they have caused me to think earnestly and to have an epiphany of sorts.

The experiences were as follows:

After not having done much reading for a while, putting it off, being distracted by activities such as research and writing — and by daily life — I took up a book that I had started a while ago and began reading it in earnest.

I went to a play on an impulse, because someone else (namely, my wife and a friend) had seem it the day before and it piqued my interest.

I had occasion to think earnestly about personal relationships of mine, relationships with persons long intimate with me but with whom friction has arisen from time to time.

What, you may ask, does reading a book have to do with personal relationships? And, what does seeing a play have to do with them both, or at least the latter? The relationships are important to me, the book is of interest, but it’s only a book. And, I saw a play. Nice, but how does that relate to my epiphany?

A common thread ran through all the experiences. I will try to illustrate it below. Sometimes, things that engage our attention can get us to do “mental stretching,” as it were, to think anew about things, to entertain new thoughts, to reexamine our preconceptions, to look at things from another’s point of view, to enlarge our mental horizons. Such things often do not seem that important in and of themselves, but they can serve as catalysts and turning points.

 

 

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The various spokes of the wheel, the driving factors underlying my epiphany, were not uniform and did not occur all at once. To give an example of how something seemingly inconsequential can affect one’s outlook, the other day I saw a play, as I mentioned above: specifically, a stage adaptation of J. M. Synge’s The Aran Islands. My thoughts were wandering, as they often do, when one, say, is in a theater or lecture hall. I started thinking deeply about another person. My thoughts were totally focused on that person; there was a wonderful, edifying (perhaps I should also say liberating) feeling of being outside of one’s self. How or why did this occur? I think in part because of a “change of venue.” I am not a habitual playgoer. I did not know what to expect from then play. Such an experience and setting can result in things getting rearranged in one’s mind, in a fresh perspective.

The Synge play stimulated me in other ways as well. Though I was having trouble focusing on the words, I was interested in the language used by Synge (his vocabulary and style, that is); in the Aran Islands, its people with what I guess one might call their peculiarities; and Synge himself. I purchased his book The Aran Islands. It never would have occurred to me to have done so otherwise.

 

 

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I am reading a scholarly book about Walt Whitman, The Foreground of Leaves of Grass by Floyd Stovall. It demands full attention, which is amply rewarded. What a pleasure to read for knowledge. Tutelage. When someone else knows much more than you do about a subject. To broaden one’s horizons. Become more learned. Concentrate (the locution of Samuel Johnson, in a memorable phrase), engage, and focus the mind. It puts one’s mind in neutral gear, so to speak. Obviates self-absorption and petty concerns. Or, to put it another way, forces you to stop and think.

Also, concentrated reading — and its corollary, scholarship — enable one to achieve a state of intense concentration in which the mind is very focused and becomes cleansed. It’s a liberating experience. Being able to do such mental work is an indicator of having achieved for a duration mental stability, in which petty concerns and upsets have to take a back seat, at least as long as one is engaged in the mental “task.”

I suspect that that same thing occurs with activity, work, that is not necessarily or exclusively mental. Say craftsmanship, perhaps drawing or carpentry; building or engineering; professional activities such as medicine and health care; and so on.

 

 

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The morale of this brief post: it’s often beneficial to act on impulse when something arises that gives you the impetus to do so.

To be willing to say, guess what, I would like to see that play too. This book, film, or whatever looks interesting. I’m going to read or watch it. You have to kind of “clear the decks” to do so. Make a little space in your life and your schedule. But, you know what? I have found that “room” to do it can always be found somehow.

 

 

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Here’s a final thought. People. Relationships that begin casually. Somehow you make a link. Often, because you click somehow on some point or other, perhaps a shared interest or enthusiasm.

I don’t want to get too personal on this site, but I met my wife by serendipity. It would have seemed that we would have not had much that much in common, but we clicked off the bat. A relationship developed just like that. Without premeditation. It just happened. Once or twice, I was inclined to ask myself what was happening, but I LET IT HAPPEN. Thank God I did. My life was changed so much for the better.

 

 

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A corollary. Things take one by surprise. The big things in life. The important things, that is. You have an idea perhaps that you would like to get married in the future (though perhaps you’re not quite sure) and envision it, vaguely, happening. When it happens, it’s never quite like what you expected. You know in the abstract, or as a medical certainty, that someone is likely to die soon, but when it happens, you’re never prepared for it.

 

 

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I would be inclined to say that we can’t actually control things, can’t stage manage our lives, when it comes to the big things. Best policy: don’t try. Let them happen. Welcome them (as Walt Whitman said in his poems on the topic of death), and, when it comes to tragic events, accept them. And, when you get an impulse from above, a siren call, heed it.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   July 2017

Benjamin Britten, “Elegy”

 

 

 

 

 

(scroll down for music)

 

 

The Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31, is a song cycle written in 1943 by English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) for tenor accompanied by a solo horn and a small string orchestra. Composed during World War II, it is a setting of six poems by British poets.

It is comprised of eight movements, including “Elegy”, set to the poem “The Sick Rose” by William Blake.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 2017

 

 

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The Sick Rose

 

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

 

 

Continue reading

The Ecchoing Green

 

 

Central Park, April 10, 2017

photo by Roger W. Smith

 

 

Central Park 6-02 p.m. 4-10-2017

 

The sun does arise,
And make happy the skies.
The merry bells ring
To welcome the Spring.
The sky-lark and thrush,
The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around,
To the bells’ cheerful sound.
While our sports shall be seen
On the Ecchoing Green.

— William Blake, “The Ecchoing Green”

William Blake, “Eternity”

 

Eternity

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise

 

— “Eternity” (1777) by William Blake (1757 – 1827), from the poet’s notebook

 

 

 

 

Anger Management 101

 

 

I have had occasion to be thinking a lot in the past week about anger.

Having been under considerable stress for various reasons, I have lost my temper on several occasions.

I found myself doing this over trivial things. For example, I was in a Dunkin’ Donuts/Baksin Robbins store and ordered ice cream for me and my older son. The guy behind the counter said, “That’s two ice coffees, right?” I answered angrily and loudly, “No! I said ice CREAM.”

There were other, more serious incidents this week of me losing my temper or expressing displeasure. One was with a company for messing up the shipment of items I had ordered, so that they didn’t arrive on time (it was totally their fault); another one was with a professional person whom I know on a provider-client basis; and I had disagreements with members of my immediate family.

Usually, people find me to be mild mannered and not prone — in public at least — to annoyance or anger. My behavior this week was not the norm.

I have been thinking, about anger: when is it appropriate and when is it not?

William Blake’s insights, expressed in his poem “The Poison Tree” come to mind:

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

(“A Poison Tree,” from Songs of Experience)

I would say that anger is appropriate and can’t be avoided in intimate relationships — e.g., a marriage.

If spouses did not argue (frequently), that would be abnormal.

My parents used to make this point to me and my siblings. They got along well. And, they tried to present a unified front when it came to issues related to parenting, so that we children would not see them bickering over what measures to adopt when it came to disciplining us or setting rules of conduct, say.

At the same time, they told us that couples who pretended that their relationship was one of perfect harmony and bliss and who hid conflicts from their children were fostering an untrue, picture perfect image that was actually harmful, because it would not prepare their offspring to deal with issues that would arise when they became adults and married. (This was a shared belief, but I seem to recall that it was my father who actually said this to me.)

It seems that the situation regarding “anger management” is different when it comes to NON-intimate relationships: e.g., a professional and client; teacher and student; employee and boss; relationships between professional or academic colleagues or businesspeople; and so on.

A few observations and illustrative examples from my own experience.

Honesty is a cardinal virtue I was raised on and believed in.

So I always thought Blake was right. When you are really angry, disagree with someone strongly — when it is not a trivial matter that can (and probably should, in such instances) be passed over — you should express it, share with the other person what you really feel, no matter how hard this may be.

Presumably, or at least hopefully, they will appreciate your honesty and integrity and will not, in the final analysis, be offended.

Nice to contemplate, but this has rarely been the case, in my experience.

On those occasions when I have allowed myself to express anger at someone, have leveled with them, it has rarely gone well or been taken well. It has almost always seemed to be bitterly resented and often has led to the end of the relationship and/or a “counter grudge” against me.

I should add that, from my experience, it seems that the case is different with really close relationships, such as relationships with a spouse or lover or family relationships (close family relationships, that is). It does seem that anger can and should be expressed, when it is legitimate and truly felt, in such situations, which could be said to be obvious — that it can’t be avoided — and that, while it may lead to bitterness and recrimination (and almost always does, it seems), it is possible to work through such feelings and come to a level of understanding in which the relationship has been in some ways strengthened, so that expressing anger is a NECESSARY thing. It kind of reminds me of when engineers have to shut down a part of a highway or bridge for a while for repairs, but then it reopens, strengthened and improved.

In the case of NON-intimate relationships, I have found that the best policy is to refrain to the fullest extent possible from expressing annoyance or anger, from letting it show. A therapist I was seeing once gave me precisely this advice (by implication, in the form of a question he addressed to me).

Sometimes I have failed to adhere to this self-styled “best policy” — invariably with bad consequences.

For example.

I was experiencing some difficulties once — it’s a convoluted story — with the editor of an academic journal I was associated with. I don’t remember the details of our disagreement. There was some underlying tension between the editor and me over my status as a contributor to the journal, on the masthead of which my name had been recently added.

I had done several book reviews for the journal and a successor publication. They were praised by the editor, along with some of my other writings. Then, I was given the assignment of reviewing a major new book, a biography of an important American writer, by this same person, the editor with whom I was experiencing friction. I gave his book a very thorough review, and a very favorable one (which it deserved).

Sometime not long after, I was given the assignment by the book review editor (not the same person as the one mentioned in the previous paragraph) to review two books for the next issue. One of the books was edited by the same person mentioned above, the journal editor whose biography of a writer I had recently reviewed.

I purchased the two books and started in right away to read them, preparing to review them. Then, a little while later, the book review editor contacted me and informed me that she was assigning one of the two books to a different reviewer. The book she was reassigning was the one edited by the editor of the journal, the English professor with whom I was having some disagreements.

This annoyed me and I wondered what was going on. Had the journal editor (the author) told the book review editor to take the assignment away from me? But I deemed it best to comply and say nothing about it.

Then my irritation got the best of me. I called the book review editor (not a wise move), who called me back the next day. I tried to be nonconfrontational, asked her as politely as I could what was going on. Was there some underlying reason that the decision had been made to take this particular book away from me, so to speak, and give it to another reviewer?

Her answer, in a nutshell, was no, it had nothing to do with me. It had just happened that someone else had come along who was willing to do the review.

I said fine, although I wasn’t completely satisfied with her explanation. Nevertheless, I thought the matter was over and done with.

But, as it turned out, the mere dropping of a hint of annoyance at her doorstep did have negative consequences. I did the other review that I had been assigned, but I never heard from the book review editor again. This despite the fact that I seemed to be one of her best and reliable book reviewers. I have contacted her since suggesting reviews, and she does not answer my emails.

She obviously decided that it was not worth the aggravation to continue dealing with me.

Something similar – in reverse, as it were – happened with me.

Around eight years ago, I was contemplating a trip to Russia and hired a private language instructor, a Russian émigré living in New York, to tutor me in the language, which I had studied, without achieving fluency, in college.

I took lessons with him twice a week in Manhattan at a modest rate, but they didn’t last long.

The instructor was short tempered and didn’t seem to enjoy what he was doing. He was impatient when I faltered with the language, had trouble pronouncing it, and so on. He was even annoyed when I had trouble using a cassette recorder he had advised me to purchase and bring to the lessons with me.

On one occasion, he vented anger openly, for no reason whatsoever. It was a very brief outburst. Not that apparent or vehement, but it was enough for me.

I thought about it and had no trouble reaching a decision. I didn’t need the aggravation. As a client, I was totally at liberty to leave. It wasn’t worth it, so I quit.

I heard from him again — he called trying to get me to start lessons with him again.

He seemed to really need the business.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 2016