William Blake once wrote, “The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.” A good sentiment to keep in mind as we in the United States pause for Thanksgiving today. Appreciation for our many benefits, and as well, our sorrows, is an important, and often overlooked, element in the Buddhist attitude.
Speaking of William Blake, today is also the 256th anniversary of his birth. To poetry lovers, Blake needs no introduction. He is one of the greatest poets in the English language, although he was relatively unknown during his lifetime. While he lived during the Romantic Age, Blake was, to my mind, a metaphysical poet, a mystic. Considered a bit of an eccentric for his nonconformist spirit, he was also a radical thinker who associated with likes of Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame) and Thomas Paine.
Blake’s metaphysical bent and prophetic utterances make him a child of Rumi, a father of Whitman, and grandfather to Ginsberg and many others. A consistent theme in his poetry is that what we think of as ‘divine’ should not be consigned only to the lofty clouds of some heavenly place, but rather the divine exists everywhere, in everything, especially in what we call ordinary.
Here is a poem that first appeared (as a graphic plate) in Songs of Experience (1794). It’s a perfect example of how Blake explored the relationship between the human and the divine.
The Human Abstract
Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we;
And mutual fear brings peace;
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.
He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears:
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.
Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Catterpillar and Fly,
Feed on the Mystery.
And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.
The Gods of the earth and sea
Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain