William Blake: Auguries of Innocence – An Analysis (Part I)

Despite having been relatively unknown to his contemporaries, William Blake is one of the more well-known Romantic poets in contemporary scholarship. During his life, this poet / printmaker / painter was considered little more than a genius bordering on lunacy. William Wordsworth, the most prominent poet of his time, once commented on seeing Blake’s work that it was the work of a madman (Bentley, 2003). After he was rediscovered by the Victorians, however, and especially after Robert Browning commented that Blake’s poetry in clean, print form was highly desirable, Blake’s poetry became widely read. This trend has continued until today.

 Blake, even more so than any other poet, can be considered as the poet of righteous fury, with his poetry showing Blake’s indignation with, and disdain towards, all that is corrupt in his country and his religion. Coupled with his vivid imagery and his simplistic approach to the syntax of poetry– at least when compared to the poetic syntax of the Augustine poets of the 18th century – Blake’s poetry results in an unprecedented canon of poetry that is unparalleled in power and honesty.

 Blake’s scholarship, although not as extensive as some critics vaguely state, is certainly varied. With scholars discussing topics ranging from Blake’s revolutionary nature to Blake’s theology, from the sexuality in Blake’s poetry to his advocacy of piety and charitable practices, and with scholarly papers looking at The Book of Thel, Jerusalem, and everything he published in between, it’s surprising that scholarly articles – even analyses! – of his poem Auguries of Innocence are almost impossible to come by.

 Auguries of Innocence is Blake at his most sublime. All his usual themes are stated with a passion that, were it not for the strength of his convictions and the resolute nature of his character, would border on the absurd. Blake’s ideas and thoughts are direct enough to make a lasting impact on the reader while at the same time being subtle enough to avoid being too overly moralizing. The poem as a whole is a masterpiece that shows Blake as one of the foremost poets.

 Auguries of Innocence is a long assembly of conflicted situations laden with warnings and omens of judgment. The poem draws a line pitting the innocent or underprivileged against those blessed and elite. It calls for the audience to take note of so many subtle beauties and to recognize the fragile balance that allows such things to thrive. The poem is purposely long and includes portions of rough rhyme schemes, which may be an attempt by the poet to mimic the lives of the innocent. Following the teachings of Jesus Christ, Blake’s poem shows how those who experienced endless night and were not blessed in life will find God. Those who in life were considered to be “clothed in light” will see God as well, but He will come to them as an abstraction of Himself.

 Written in 1803, Auguries of Innocence, a poem that remained unpublished until sixty years after its creation, is at the same time one of Blake’s most well-known and least-known poems. Thanks to the influence of popular culture, the first four enigmatic lines of the poem are relatively well-known, while most of the other 128 lines of the poem have been relegated to oblivion.

 It has been argued that Auguries of Innocence is a poem full of paradoxes – however, many of these paradoxes become understandable concepts when one thinks about the poem using mathematical, rather than literary or cultural, paradigms. The poem brings up seemingly paradoxical situations that might seem unfathomable to traditional human understanding. This first stanza is very descriptive at an abstract level, and certainly aesthetically pleasing. One should recognize that these four lines are the only ones that stand apart from the lengthy body of the poem:

 “To see the world in a grain of sand

and heaven in a wildflower

hold infinity in the palm of your hand

and eternity in an hour.”

 One of the paradoxes in the poem is the idea of holding infinity in a finite space. The fact that “infinity” is an abstract idea that is not tangible and, therefore, cannot be held in anything. Another paradox involves holding eternity – an infinite concept – in a single hour, which is finite. As stated above, these two concepts are unfathomable to traditional human understanding, but when one takes a mathematical approach to Blake’s comments on the infinity of space and time within a limited measurement, it becomes clear that Blake’s understanding of reality was greater than most other contemporary poets.

 In mathematics, linear time is eternal – once it starts it goes on forever. Is it possible, then, to hold infinite time in an hour? If one considers measurements of time, it is. Just as every hour holds sixty minutes, every minute holds sixty seconds. However, within each second there are a thousand milliseconds. Within each of these milliseconds there are microseconds, which hold nanoseconds. Although currently the smallest unit measurable is the attosecond, which represents one quintillionth of a second and is represented as 10−18 of a second, there are already defined terms for the theoretical constructs of the zeptosecond and the yoctosecond – both of which are far smaller than the atosecond. These measurements are a measure of infinity that exists not in a linear manner towards an infinitely large natural time, but in an infinity that exists inside and within time – there is an infinite amount of fractional time between one second and another. The same mathematical principle applies to measurement of space, but instead of considering time measurements it considers spatial measurements. If one considers time and space in this “infinitely inwards” perspective, rather than in the traditional linear infinity, it does become possible to hold infinity in a finite space and eternity in a limited time.

 It could be argued that the first four lines are a comment on how our planet, the life in it, space, and time are each an individual piece of a larger infinite puzzle, and that these pieces are all connected to, and relate, to each other. If this is the case, then the rest of the problem gives examples of how this interaction plays out.

 Certainly, the meaning of some of Blake’s mythology cannot be easily understood if one is ignorant of Blake’s mythology and the times in which Blake lived in. However, for this poem to be truly enjoyed with any level of understanding, it is prudent to have some accompanying commentary with the text. In this article I will attempt a cultural and critical reading of Blake’s Auguries of Innocence in order to shed some light to the concepts which Blake puts forward in his poem.

 I have already offered a mathematical explanation of the first four lines of the poem, but perhaps a transcendent interpretation is warranted for full comprehension. Blake writes:

             “To see the world in a grain of sand

            and heaven in a wild flower.”

 These two lines refer to Sight – not eyesight in the common use of the word, but a transcendental sight that allows the individual to see beyond what is visible. This transcendental sight that will allow the individual to “see the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower” could be interpreted as knowledge of the world and all that is within it. Because the pre-requisite to acquire this vision is the mathematical knowledge to “hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour”, it would stand to reason that the knowledge granted by Blakean sight is the scientific ability to understand the world at a sub-atomic level.

 Certainly, this interpretation of the first four lines might seem wildly speculative, and it might be that applying contemporary scientific knowledge to nineteenth century poetry could be a giant leap of faith, but when one considers that Blake had a firm grasp of mathematical concepts, as demonstrated by the symmetrical structure of his poetry, and of biology, as demonstrated by the content of his poems, it could be argued that Blake at least toyed with the ideas of infinite finite space and endless time within time and with concepts of a single-unit building block that composes everything in the universe.

 Although these first lines might hint that the reader should prepare for a highly scientific poem, this is not the case. While these first four lines hint at scientific discussion, the rest of the poem revolves around social issues and philosophic discussions.

– On my next post I’ll put up some comments on lines 6 to 18.


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on May 16, 2011, in Literature Commentary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I found your analysis of the first 4 lines of Blake’s “Augeries” fascinating and want you to continue your analysis. I would love to read how you feel about Janet Warner’s analysis as well. Thank you for mathatical concept of the first stanzas. I Think you’re just spot on and have introduced insight to Blake’s genius.

  2. it would be great if have a audio lecture on the this poem.sometimes reading is not enough to comprehend such obscure concepts.sir can u please deliver a lecture by uploading a video

    • Since we’re in the regular semester I don’t have as much time to make videos as I would like to, but I do have a lecture coming up on Blake. I’ll be sure to touch on this poem for a few minutes and upload the audio to Youtube. You can find my channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/DrQuijano, tho it’s mostly tutorials. Look for the video sometime next week!

  3. I found your blog whIle searching for a tale on auguries of innocence by william Blake. With Kojima’s new trailer out for death stranding starting out with the opening lines, I’d be curious to see your opinion on the relations you might see in Kojima’s work inspired by Blake’s poem. 🙂

  4. Technical question: not being a native English speaker, the first time I saw this poem, I thought the very first “to” was an infinitive verb one, not a preposition. I would like to ask you why I went wrong, How do you tell the difference?

  1. Pingback: An Analysis of William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence (Part II) « Johanistan

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  3. Pingback: Auguries of Innocence – Il Polo Positivo

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