Listen to ‘Auguries of Innocence’ by William Blake, read by Paul O’Prey:
Reading the opening lines of Blake’s great invocation to see and cherish the whole universe as a single, living being, I find myself thinking of Robert Macfarlane’s timely reminder, that ‘wonder is an essential survival skill for the Anthropocene’. Blake is the master of wonder:
To see the 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.
Blake’s short masterpiece, ‘Auguries of Innocence’, written about 1803, could be a manifesto for the Poems for the Earth project. It is a remarkable hymn to the diversity of creation, full of wonder and awe at the beauty of the natural world around us. At the same time, for a society dangerously disconnecting from the natural world, Blake’s poem sounds an urgent rallying call to remember how everything is connected, how humanity and nature are inter-dependent.
In a litany of declamatory couplets, Blake sets out a personal code for living harmoniously with the natural world. All living creatures are to be well-treated, with a warning that to hurt one life is to hurt all life:
A dog starved at his masters gate
Predicts the ruin of the state
A horse misused upon the road
Calls to heaven for human blood.
Blake takes us through a list of creatures that includes skylarks, wrens, caterpillars, and moths. No living being is insignificant in Blake’s vision of compassion for the world, while humanity’s well-being is inextricably tied to the well-being of animals roaming free and unharmed in the wild:
Every wolfs and lions howl
Raises from Hell a human soul
The wild deer wandring here and there
Keeps the human soul from care
For Blake, it is impossible to separate how we treat the animal world from how we treat each other. The natural environment and the human environment are one and the same. In more modern terms we might say that we can’t save the environment without reforming society: ecology and social justice are two sides of the same coin.
This is a radical position to adopt at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Blake uses the poem to demand greater equality and places responsibility for reform with those in power, who all too frequently descend into lies and corruption:
The strongest poison ever known
Came from Caesars laurel crown.
Blake acknowledges that life is made up equally of ‘joy and woe’, as some are born to the light, others born to ‘misery’ and the night. There is hope, however, in the light that is revealed by religious faith and he attacks those who would sow doubt in the sacredness of creation. Blake’s ‘natural religion’ brings together mankind, the animal world and God in a single vision of the possibility of harmonious existence. This possibility is threatened, however, by humanity’s capacity for greed, lying, and the wanton desecration of the natural environment.
Blake is an unorthodox Christian to say the least, but it is interesting to note that his philosophy, as set out in this poem, resonates strongly with the core message of Pope Francis’s call to protect ‘our common home’: ‘The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.’ That sums up ‘Auguries of Innocence’ pretty succinctly.