“He who kisses the joy as it flies. . .” (William Blake)

Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking

Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking

Richard Chase, one of the preeminent American folklorists (how he would have disliked that kind of description of himself), owned a copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. It was an early edition with the plates colored by an unknown hand. It was one of his prized possessions. I’m not being grandiose when I say there was a time (many, many years ago) I would visit him so I could look at that wondrous book.

This is not a “name-dropping” exercise. Several people who are likely to read this post knew Chase as well; we knew him as “Uncle Dick” before we had any idea of his importance to American culture. I own his copy of William Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time, one of the 20th-century reprints, not valuable except that it has Uncle Dick’s notations. One of my favorite memories of Uncle Dick is walking with him, naked, at midnight one full-moon night into the surf on the beach at La Jolla while he recited Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” The next day I decided the least I could do to keep that memory alive was to memorize the section

Yes, when the stars glisten’d,
All night long on the prong of a moss-scallop’d stake,
Down almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer wonderful causing tears.

He call’d on his mate,
He pour’d forth the meanings which I of all men know.
Yes my brother I know,
The rest might not, but I have treasur’d every note,
For more than once dimly down to the beach gliding,
Silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the
shadows,
Recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds
and sights after their sorts,
The white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing,
I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair,
Listen’d long and long.

Listen’d to keep, to sing, now translating the notes,
Following you my brother
.

I can’t recite it these days, but always, when I think of that night, I remember I’m basically an illiterate “bull-in-the-china-closet.” I have known true education, elegance, and kindness.

One of William Blake's visions of eternity

One of William Blake’s visions of eternity

Uncle Dick also explained to me his understanding of the poetry of William Blake. He served, Uncle Dick said, as the antidote to the Age of Enlightenment swirling around him. His poetry exists in the heart rather than in the mind. Newtonian physics and reason were fine for solving the world’s physical problems, but they were useless for understanding the human heart.

That is obviously my “spin” on Uncle Dick’s guidance and the way I remember it 40 years later. Whatever it was, in fact, that Uncle Dick said to me, what I took from it was that the life of the mind I was embarking on by going back to graduate school would serve me well only so far. Much of my life I have forgotten his wisdom.

I have not, however, forgotten the poetry of William Blake. Such wild, such odd, such emotional stuff. I came across this short poem the other day.

“Eternity,” by William Blake (1757 – 1827)

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

Last night I said to a group of friends that, as I retire, I realize I am in the process of giving up perhaps the most joyful activity of my life—working with young students. At the same time I’m giving up one of the most odious of tasks—the paperwork and institutional nonsense that weighs down the academic world.

I have nothing profound or academic or, most likely, even interesting to say about Blake’s poem except that I hope, I trust, I can kiss the joy as it flies and begin living in the sunrise. Whatever that may be. Even, perhaps, another way to experience my joy.

Sunrise at Port Orford, Oregon

Sunrise at Port Orford, Oregon

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