Geoffrey Babbitt, Five Poems

 

The William Blakes, (1757-1827)

“O aye, I forgot to tell that; he has got the same name….”
— William Blake, King Edward the Third

During the nearly seventy years of William Blake’s life,
there were fifty-four others in London

who were also christened “William Blake,”
and although someone was christened homonymously

less than three years prior, after our Blake
the next wouldn’t be for almost ten years.

The most common name for someone
fathering a William Blake

was William Blake, of whom there were twenty (the scholar I learned
this from is G.E. Bentley,

himself a Junior), and the next most common
was Richard, at eight. For mothers, there were ten

Ann(e)s and eleven Elizabeths,
depending on how you count: One

Elizabeth, wife of a William Blake,
christened a William Blake three times —

the first two probably having died. Two years
were particularly popular for William Blakes,

with five christenings each. But there were more William Blakes
than the christenings alone tell us, for in London at that time,

there were seventy-six “Mrs. William Blake”s, whose most common names
match those of William Blakes’ mothers — fifteen Ann(e)s (one with the Danish

spelling “Annae”), sixteen Elizabeths, even one other Catherine Blake,
(who bore a daughter Catherine), plus the more strikingly named

Kitty Virgoe, Latitia Bickerstaff, Milcah Summerfield, and Rachel
Ramsbottom. The most common year for a William Blake to marry

is unknown, since twenty-one of these marriages took place
outside of London, but there were three years in which

a William Blake married three times.
Of the William Blakes themselves, they fathered

twenty-seven christened children and worked
in widespread fields — as a Mercer, a Needlemaker, a Cooper,

a Haberdasher, a Cordwainer, a Stay-Maker,
an Ostler, an Upholder, and so on, and they died

ten times during Blake’s life, which is not what he meant
when he put his most famous signature in William Upcott’s

autograph album: “William Blake… Born 28 Novr 1757 in London
& has died Sveral times Since.” And although William Blake

was put in a madhouse with John Martin the York Minister incendiary
and another William Blake was named in the will

of Rebekah Bliss, the first known buyer of Songs of Innocence & of Experience,
neither was our poet-engraver. Nor was the map engraver,

the house painter, the abolitionist, the Masonic certificate maker,
or the publisher of profitable books. Although you could hardly

walk down the street without brushing elbows
with one William Blake or another,

they matter — not because they give us special insight
into Blake and his time, or because they mislead researchers

(though they do), or because their commonness
contrasts with Blake’s greatness, thereby arousing

literary elitism within us — no, they matter
because of what they do. Do you

see them? See how necessary they are
to Blake? So contrary —

at war with him! There they are,
flooding down a grassy hillside, the steepest in Ulro,

nearly a hundred of them, storming
into London and raising a great compass

whose center leg they fix in the heart
of the city while half the William Blakes

push the circumscribing leg,
not only around London and Felpham

but around time, stretching back before Blake’s birth,
around the year 1740 and further and further around time,

encircling his death and all the intervening years,
closing the circle past 1830. And now

to lock the poet in, the William Blakes fashion
the circumference with a giant chain, whose metallic

clinks Blake can hear
as he forges a hammer upon his anvil,

toiling in flaming fire unceasing.
And walking from furnace to furnace,

flames surround him as he beats
and beats the chain of the William Blakes,

whose iron links vegetate
under his hammer, and whenever he raises it again,

seas roll beneath his feet, tempests muster
around his head, and thick hail stones

stand ready to obey his voice
in the black cloud. Blake reads the stars of Albion

and swings his hammer round
and at one blow, in unpitying ruin,

drives down the William Blakes’ compass
into grains of sand and dust on a fly’s wings,

and Blake’s furnaces become fountains
of living waters flowing freely,

out of which Blake pulls
his own left eye, which he casts up

into the sidereal wheels
of Urthona, for the eye is a door,

through which he walks
out into the light and the dark.

 

 

 

Los to Enitharmon, Night the Seventh

Lovely Enitharmon 
                 lilies that gave light 
                                    looked forth 


& no one hears their voice

                 Once I sang 
                                    & calld the beasts & birds 

the stingings 
                 of desire a craving cry 
                                    on barren rocks 


the opening dawn 

                 smells of boney wings 
                                    And the winds like arrows

 

 

 

On Time and the Office of the Dead

“it is time which is at the heart of Christianity”
— Charles Olson

eight canonical hours
in a day — ere
mechanical clock, time
in natural phenomena —

a girl holding
light — metaphor
waiting for a mouth

— time as emanation
— tangible, integral —

cyclical hours within
same plane — minutiae
slipping into light — auras
unpinnable —

the temporal unfolding
an expression of eternality
— sun thrashing —
Office of the Dead reminds medieval believers

to prepare — the here
and now should be put to good
use — the plot is
acknowledging the way — nature folded

into grace, the grace
of something unnamable

 

matins

 

lauds

 

prime

 

terce

 

sext

none

 

vespers

 

compline

 

 

 

The Ancient of Days

“He took the golden Compasses, prepar’d
In God’s Eternal store, to circumscribe
This Universe, and all created things”
— Paradise Lost, Book VII, Raphael to Adam
At the top of his staircase
                 Blake sees a speckled
                                    white terror

of an old man,
                 hovering, the only ghost
                                    Blake would ever see in his life,

the image of which would age
                 into his most famous design — 
                                    Urizen, the Ancient of Days,

with a long white beard
                 and white hair, crouching
                                    down, extending an arm

into the black below him, wielding
                 a compass. The white spectre’s
                                    crouch crumples

his body into itself,
                 in contrast to the clean extension
                                    of his long left arm.

He kneels on his right knee, leaning
                 so far down
                                    that his left shoulder

is slightly lower than his left knee,
                 which juts up just
                                    above his back.

A strong wind
                 blows his hair and beard starkly sidewise.
                                    The golden compass is a right angle

that he holds at the apex,
                 symmetrically extending
                                    light into the deep below,

which is where Blake stood.

 

 

 

With Blake at Delphi

here walked those feet in ancient time,
Delphi an extent
of the human mind, the center of
the sea of time and space —

nymphs glide through the Kastalian grotto,
as in Arlington Court, a nymph
pouring water from an urn
under olive trees above the porticoed house,

weaving nymphs holding shuttles,
nymphs who outstrip
the entire Olympian hierarchy

Sipsop the Pythagorean
says to Diana’s restraint,
“hang your reasoning!”

the Olympiads were
the attempt of poets to
animate sensible objects

breathe life into a tree,
and watch it go like a nymph
— fables can hold visions

temenos of Athena Pronaia,
the peribolos of Apollo’s sanctuary —
their massy beams
clarify the Olympian imagination

— Dionysus is Rintra, and Apollo
Palambron, the sun
imagined vivid

Mathematical Diagrams, yes,
& a war-like state can never produce art,
but the pillars here
are breathing

olive trees crown the Phaidriades cliffs with shady boughs
the Siphnian sphinx overlooking Pythia’s rock —
gothic is living form,
and the Sybil was vigorous

their sunburnt faces were but clouds,
and all this sunless sea of matter
looks onto a light they knew
not what, but still it shone

 

 


Geoffrey Babbitt’s poetry and essays have recently appeared in North American Review, Pleiades, Colorado Review, TYPO, Iron Horse Literary Review, Word For/ Word, Entropy, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Interim, and elsewhere. He teaches at Hobart & William Smith Colleges where he also coedits Seneca Review.