Printer Friendly

Who didn't kill Blake's fly: moral law and the rule of grammar in 'Songs of Experience.' (William Blake)(Rhetoric and Poetics)

There is some critical consensus that Blake's "The Fly" has an ironic sting in its tail. A rough sampling of the criticism indicates a large range of such irony: Pagliaro's reading finds a merely conditional "visionary defeat" for the poem's narrator; Bloom reads a more destructive critique of the pious consolations of an orthodox Christianity; and Wagenknecht proposes a nihilistic final stanza that critically parodies syllogistic reasoning by demonstrating its effects as a heap of bodies at the end of the poem.(1) But I shall argue instead that it is we who are in danger in any encounter with the poem and that this danger originates not in the poem but in ourselves. I shall also propose, however, that the grammar of the poem, along with its formal identity as part of a chapbook, can enable us to recognize our destructive and ultimately self-destructive complicity in the text. It is in my emphasis on the agency of a reader, invoked by the poem, that the difference between my argument and the previous criticism consists.

I.

There is, perhaps expectedly, more critical agreement about the poem's plot than there is about the consequences and significance of its "events": the fly always gets to die, and in the rest of the poem it is understood that the narrator's attempt to identify with his victim is variously complicated according to the degree of irony thus read into it. It is, however, this very stability, constituted by a critical consensus about the plot, that I shall challenge by the version of reader-response criticism that follows. While virtually all critics of the poem have stabilized its plot by declining to consider their own agency in this project, I shall develop the notion of "affective stylistics," formulated by Stanley Fish, to reflect on both my own reading agency and on that of a critical consensus concerned to deny, or at least to ignore, its own complicity in the drama of this poem. My working notion of an affective stylistics will, however, differ from Fish's version by sidestepping the fairly received objection that Fish's reader never learns from his or her own experience. Jolted into self-recrimination by a disruption of its syntactic expectations, Fish's reader then approaches the next sentence, and then the next, and so on, without any suspicion that the moral lesson of the preceding sentence is about to be taught again. Since I focus here on a single lyric rather than the large narratives that Fish analyzes, I do not face the problem of an incredibly sustained credulity. But even if my reading practice were applied to the whole corpus of Blake's Songs, the problem would still not occur, both because this collection is considerably shorter than, say, Paradise Lost and because each lyric, unlike each sentence in Milton's epic, presents a different dramatic situation. Differently situated in each poem, my reader is taught a lesson that is contextually distinct. Since this lesson, staged chiefly by the genre of the chapbook, entails an exercise in reading just as much as it enjoins the exertion of moral discrimination, Blake's Songs seems proleptically to invite a version of such criticism.

Despite the supposed stability of this poem's plot, the death of the fly and hence the narrator's culpability for it are highly contingent upon how we read the first stanza. What the narrator admits is that he has "brushed away" the fly's "summer's play."(2) Either this admission is a soothing circumlocution for an act of destruction or it is an innocent account of how the narrator merely repelled, accidentally or otherwise, the fly's activity. To convict the narrator on the basis of his self-incrimination, we must first undergo a little jury selection. Virtually all the critics of this poem have established the murder by supplying the body themselves. But did they really get it from the text when the text itself does not definitively state that a death in fact occurred? In order to answer this question about whether the narrator or the reader is the dominant agent in this first stanza, we must, since the extent of the narrator's malefaction is suddenly at issue here, decide how much agency the narrator and the fly possess relative to one another.

However implausible the following scenario within a code of realism, the syntax of the first stanza allows "Thy summer's play" to be either object or subject of the verb "has brushed," and "My thoughtless hand" to be subject or object respectively. Depending on how we resolve the syntax, the narrator kills or repels the fly, or, inversely, the fly's impulsive activity successfully resists the encroaching hand. Whether the narrator or the fly is read as the subject of the verb, the sequence of the sentence, in both its variants, involves an inversion of the conventional word order of prose, so that no objection to the fly as subject can rest on an assumption about word order. Given that there is here no "normal" word order, because the poem is signaling its identity as poetry through the trope of syntactic inversion, we have no way to determine which of the two readings is more or less probable. Even if we suppose that the sequence "Little dog, your ready tooth the mailman's boot has damaged" would tend to be conventionally resolved so that the mailman's boot would be the subject of the sentence, and if we further suppose that this convention of prose syntax might govern the construing of Blake's stanza, installing the "mailman's boot" and the "thoughtless hand" as subject would nonetheless be only the most probable syntax in a range of plausible resolutions we might entertain until the sentence was read to its conclusion. That all critics who have written on the poem seem to understand the "thoughtless hand" as subject does not necessarily deny that there are no other possibilities that might finally be over-ridden at the end of the stanza.(3)

Conditioning my alternative reading of the stanza are numerous instances within the scope of Blake's notoriously versatile syntax of such possible fluctuations of subject and object. In "The Sick Rose," for example, which is another "Song of Experience," the rose may be sick because its life is being destroyed by the worm's "dark secret love" or because this "dark secret love" is being destroyed by the rose's "life."

O Rose thou art sick. The invisible worm, That flies in the night In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed Of crimson joy: And his dark secret love Does thy life destroy. (23)(4)

The factor that specifically allows "his dark secret love" to be read as the object of "destroy" and "thy life" as the subject, is the rhetorical figure of syntactic inversion called "anastrophe."

What I am emphasizing in this focus on the possible transpositions of subject and object is how the plots of these brief lyrics can be easily and totally transformed and how considerable responsibility thus devolves onto a reader who can be seen to read among opposed options. What happens to the text determines what happens in the text (this continuity is incidentally signaled by the punning title of the poem, for it names an item within the text as well as the text itself). Despite the poem's apparent invocation of a reading subject, however, this subject will not be here elaborated into the familiar and less than sophisticated concept of the naive reader who, by recognizing his or her errors, is progressively educated to become a sophisticated reader. The reading subject I characterize will be such that we would be ingenuous to describe it as either naive or sophisticated. Invoked in the first instance by the polarized interpretive choices that the poem seems to offer, my reader is only as determinate as the choice that it finally makes within this dilemma. Since such a reader is figured by the dilemma only before it is resolved, the text itself provides no indication of which choice this reader must make, or, indeed, whether it must finally make a choice at all. This figured reader could choose either way, or might choose, agnostically, not to choose. It further confounds any effort to characterize and so judge this reader that it is already characterized as a particularly complex persona by the generic identification of Blake's Songs as a children's chapbook. Projecting both an adult and infant reading persona, Blake's Songs denies a conveniently unitary figure that might thus be anticipated and judged. Since the poem refuses to delineate this reader, even as it vigorously constitutes it, and the chapbook models two readers simultaneously, the only readers of the poem available for characterization are those critics who have grappled with it on record. As part of my account of the uncertain reading position provided by the poem, I must in due course consider how other critics have tried to occupy it.

Helping to drive the prevailing interpretation of the poem, in which the fly dies and the narrator identifies with it, are some earlier literary texts that seem to be cited as prototypes by this account of the poem. Whether or not Blake is assumed to have been familiar with these texts, they are certainly available to be cited by the criticism of Blake's poem. One of these texts is William Oldys's lyric "On a Fly Drinking from his Cup":

Busy, curious, thirsty fly! Drink with me, and drink as I: Freely welcome to my cup, Couldst thou sip, and sip it up: Make the most of life you may, Life is short and wears away.

Just alike, both mine and thine, Hasten quick to their decline: Thine's a summer, mine no more, Though repeated to three-score. Three-score summers, when they're gone, Will appear as short as one. (525)

Oldys's lyric impinges specifically on Blake's text by rehearsing a plot in which the fly dies and thus becomes a determining or legitimating factor in later criticism of "The Fly." By advancing the following simile, the blind Gloucester in King Lear similarly establishes the death of a fly and one's consequent identification with it that later criticism of Blake's poem will quote specifically in the context of this passage.

As flies to wanton boys, are we to th'Gods; They kill us for their sport. (2.1. 36-37)

In their reading of Blake, Hirsch and Bloom both refer to this passage.

To quote this excerpt from King Lear as part of an account of Blake's poem is, of course, to presume that the fly dies. If, however, the fly is presumed to survive, an equally compelling literary antecedent might be invoked to corroborate this reading. In Chapman's Iliad, as the Greeks hesitate in their mission to recover Patroclus's body, Menelaus is said to have a special relation with Pallas:

. . . The king's so royall will Minerva joy'd to heare, since she did all the gods outgo In his remembrance. For which grace she kindly did bestow Strength on his shoulders and did fill his knees as liberally With swiftnesse, breathing in his breast the courage of a flie Which loves to bite so and doth beare man's bloud so much good will That still (though beaten from a man) she flies upon him still: With such a courage Pallas fild the blacke parts neare his hart.(5) (17.485-92)

Unlike the Shakespearean "flies," and for that matter Donne's' "flea," which also meets an unceremonious end, the Homeric fly is an epic emblem of action, "courage," and sheer survival. So resourceful is this Homeric fly that Pope, in his edition of the Iliad, denies that it can be a fly by effectively mis-translating the Greek word [Greek Text Omitted], as "hornet."

II.

So much for the small swarm of literary flies that may have conditioned, and in some cases have certainly not conditioned, the criticism of the poem's first stanza. Much of the criticism discussing "The Fly" has read darker, more ironic options in the narrator's apparent identification with the fly than did, for example, E. D. Hirsch, who effectively congratulated the narrator for his visionary sympathy (236-41).(6) Although Hirsch's reading also subscribes to the unnecessary assumption that the narrator has killed the fly, I want to suggest that the text can offer either the guilty narrator of critical consensus or the extenuated, even exonerated narrator of Hirsch, depending on whether we identify ourselves as unimpeachably righteous judges or as judges whose integrity can be reclaimed only by a self-impeachment for fabricating the evidence on which the judgment of the narrator was first based. Any repercussions that the latter reading might have for the former will merely disturb the moral distance that earlier criticism thinks that it can stabilize between itself and the narrator. Whether condemning the narrator from a vantage of moralistic superiority or approving of him from the perspective of a Humean sympathy, the criticism has assumed a distance between itself and the text. This distance is, however, as fictional, or otherwise, as the fly's death, because it depends on the assumption that there is a standpoint from which this death can be confidently predicated. Once the poem's grammar is seen to be at issue, this death and its judicial consequences become just as uncertain as this grammar.

If there are crucial differences between the narrator and the fly, they are constituted, ironically, by the narrator's efforts to urge an identity between the two in order to override differences that otherwise would not be an issue. It is by staging a comparison that the narrator triggers contrasts that threaten to displace the initial comparisons between the two figures. The second stanza canvasses the possibility of this identity, and the next stanza can be read to provide the conditions for it. Apparently connecting the narrator with the fly is the dancing, drinking, and singing that is manifested not only as the thoughtlessness that impels the narrator to destroy, or dismiss, the fly, but also as the fly's "play" that enables the narrator to despatch it. Dancing, drinking, and singing here collapse thoughtlessness, "play," and blindness into an overall unity. The identification with the victim that this unity entails conveniently obviates any question about whether the fly's fate at the hands of the narrator was deliberate or accidental. Whether the narrator's hand was "thoughtless" in the sense of oblivious or whether it committed a deliberate but unreflective act are questions finessed by the supposed identification on the ground of a common impetuosity. If, however, this identification is questioned, either by the narrator or by the reader alone, this discrimination between different degrees of the narrator's motivation is considerably enhanced.

There is a similarly importunate effort to identify with an insect, first alive and then dead, in Donne's "The Flea." This poem entails a manipulative narrator who is about the usual business of seduction. He tries to achieve this goal by a synecdoche identifying the narrator and his potential lover within those "living walls of jet" that comprise a promiscuously blood-sucking flea. Since their bloods have already been mingled, the narrator asks, why not go the whole way? The related doctrines of incarnation, crucifixion, and communion, with which Donne's narrator dices, seem to stand behind Blake's poem too. It is these related doctrines that "The Fly" might be seen to resist as it interrogates the terms of the supposed identification between narrator and fly. All of these doctrines are predicated on a separation between God and Man that an act of sacrifice closes. Just as "The Fly" itself seems to disrupt this formulation, so other works by Blake, such as the first stanza of "The Human Abstract," deny both this separation and the necessity of sacrifice.

The fourth and fifth stanzas can be understood to continue the attempted identification between the narrator and the fly on further grounds. Correlating "thought" and its absence with "life" and "death," and then suggesting that his happiness, as a fly, is already secure, the narrator may be arguing that just as he assures a continued life to the absent fly by thinking about it in the poem, so also is he supplying a perpetuity for himself by thinking of himself and the fly in a poem the reader will read commemoratively. Not only does the reader "think" of the narrator as the narrator "thinks" of the fly, but the narrator and the fly are also ultimately suggested as parallel and thus similar objects of thought for the reader. Characteristic of amatory verse, such as Shakespeare's sonnets 15, 18, and 19, the convention whereby the lyric "I" immortalizes a privileged addressee is deployed here to suggest the intimacy of an identity between narrator and fly. What contradicts the predication of a total identity in the lines "Then am I/A happy fly" is the fact that narrator and fly are constituted as parallel objects of the reader's thought by an initial hierarchy that the narrator constructs and that allows no place for the fly's thought. It is the commemorative thought of the narrator alone that initiates a process of resurrection then underwritten by the reader.

The last two stanzas of "The Fly" and especially the relations between them, have been generally acknowledged as the most enigmatic portions of the poem.(7) Another reading of these stanzas might be just as plausible as the one advanced above: the fourth stanza could be a speculation that "life" may consist only in an awareness of itself, thus precluding any awareness of its absence, while the fifth stanza could be drawing the inference that death is not to be dreaded because it is merely the absence of "thought" about both itself and everything else. If thought is what constitutes a subject in relation to itself as object, the "want" of thought will cancel both subject and object, so that oblivion will be its own consolation. The rhetorical project of these stanzas seems once again to be to urge the narrator's identification with the fly, since he is shown in the process of endorsing its apparent nonchalance about death. And yet again, this identification is highly resistible: only if the subjects "thought" and "want of thought" and their predicates "life" and "death" are read as applicable to both narrator and fly is this identification at all possible. If, on the other hand, we suppose that these subjects and predicates are not all generally applicable to narrator and fly and that it is specifically the narrator's thought or want of it' that determines life and death, specifically for the fly, then the alleged identity of the two figures is denied by the unilateral characteristic of the narrator's "thought" about the fly. There is a similar denial of identity if we assume instead that it is the narrator's "thought" that assigns "life," "want of thought," and "death" to the fly. The fourth stanza will support at least three permutations of how these subjects and predicates can be correlated with the fly and the narrator.

What is perhaps most resistant in all of this to my claim of identification is not merely the power that accrues to the narrator's thought in two of the permutations above, but that it is the narrator alone who forms these propositions about "thought" and indeed about everything else in the poem. By appearing as the only discursive subject in the poem, the narrator enacts the unilateral thought that can be read in the fourth stanza. David Wagenknecht, however, suggests a provocative complication of this notion:

But The Fly is unique among the Songs in that it is etched in two columns, the first three stanzas in one column and the two-stanza rejoinder to the right, the typographical form suggesting a dialogue with two speakers and perhaps implying "two laws." In fact we can see the last two stanzas as constituting a "reply" . . . to the first three, the reply of the fly addressed in the first stanza. We assume that the speaker of the final two stanzas is in fact an interlocutionary fiction of the speaker of the first, a fiction resulting from his successful identification with the fly in stanza 2. (109)

Although Wagenknecht countenances the possibility of a second speaker, he concludes nonetheless that this persona is only a projection of the narrator. Wagenknecht assumes that this speaker is an interlocutionary fiction because he has already presupposed that the fly has been destroyed by the narrator. If we accept his presupposition, we intensify the unilateral component of the narrator's identification with the fly, and the identity itself is thereby falsified, because all the predications about this identity are made in the absence of the fly, which cannot therefore assent to, challenge, on propose alternatives to this identification. How can there ever be an intimate similarity between these figures when its articulation depends on one of them, and only one of them, being dead?

III.

Although I shall go on to argue that the poem can be read to ask this same question of itself, so far I have operated mainly within the parameters of a critical consensus that supposes this question to be asked only by the reader. The narrator is enabled, or made, to avoid ever acknowledging this question because he has already conflated all the attributes of himself and the fly so that they become conditions of an identification: he glosses the impulsiveness of the "thoughtless hand," the exuberance of the "summer's play," and the oblivion of "death" all as a common innocence. To accept this conflation, as do the narrator and critics such as Hirsch and D. C. Gillham (218-19), is to repeat the act of destruction that the poem is trying to rationalize. That this rationalization is such a repetition becomes the extremity of the narrator's crime. While the narrator claims that the cause of the fly's destruction is the impulsiveness that identifies him with it, he also maintains that this identity justifies that destruction by allowing the narrator himself to compensate for the fly's absence. Cause, justification, and reparation are alleged to be identical. Their identity, however, depends crucially on the identification of the narrator with the fly, which is in turn disrupted by the unilateral component in those gestures of explanation, justification, and compensation. Each of these two logical circuits needs the other to validate itself, but when they intersect, both of these circuits are radically broken.

If the "thoughtless hand" is read as the hand of the writer or engraver, the complicity of the poem with the destructive act that it claims to investigate could even be registered in the first stanza. The obliteration, or dismissal, of the fly would thus be caused by and partly contemporaneous with the acts of writing and engraving, because the fly would be despatched not before but during the writing. This incriminating proximity of the writing hand to the fly's fate, however, is once again a function of how we construe the relevant lines. Our very attribution to the writing hand of an extreme power over life and death is itself figured, by the starkly alternative reading of the first stanza, as a mere attribution that originates in the more awesome power of the reader. If this reader is to be characterized by features other than the power of choice, which is the property with which the poem itself figures this persona, it is the poem's genre that must supply these elusive details. Signing itself as an instance of the chapbook and hence as a form of morally edifying literature, Songs of Innocence and of Experience projects a reader who must be induced by exemplary and cautionary tales to make moral discriminations between those tales. Since the chapbook was a means, in a culture with few books, of teaching literacy as well as moral judgment, the reader it supposes and consequently figures is a persona to whom considerable work is assigned.(8)

So much labor is in fact required of this reader, who must do the work of actually becoming a reader, that the text implies the presence of another, more competent reader who might mediate, on the one hand, between the competence assumed and demanded by the text, and, on the other, the lack of such competence it also assumes of its illiterate or semi-literate addressee. "The Fly," in common with the other poems in the collection, implies an adult reader who must assist a juvenile subject to modulate from non-literacy to the condition of literacy. Explicitly invoking such an adult reader to help her or his junior counterpart is the preface to John Newbery's A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, published in 1767. Inscribed at the outset 'TO THE PARENTS, GUARDIANS, AND NURSES IN GREAT-BRITAIN and IRELAND,' this text features a preface that effectively instructs this adult audience how to use the succeeding text, comprising simple fables and morals.

Would you have a Wise Son, teach him to reason early. Let him read, and make him understand what he reads. No Sentence should be passed over without a strict Examination of the Truth of it; and though this may be thought hard at first, and seem to retard the Boy in his Progress, yet a little Practice will make it familiar, and a Method of Reasoning will be acquired, which will be of use to him all his Life after. (58)

It is just such a practice of not passing over any sentence without "a strict Examination of the Truth of it" that "The Fly" is here being said to invite.

A modification of this scenario of reading, in which the juvenile reader is assisted by an adult, is proposed by Maria Edgeworth's Harry and Lucy Concluded; being the Last Part of Early Lessons. Repeating a proposal featured in other examples of children's literature written by the Edgeworths and that seems thereby to be elevated into a principle, the "PREFACE; ADDRESSED TO PARENTS" makes this recommendation:

Much that would be tiresome and insufferable to young people if offered by preceptors in a didactic tone, will be eagerly accepted when suggested in conversation, especially in conversations between themselves. . . . The great preceptor, standing on the top of the ladder of learning, can hardly stretch his hand down to the poor urchin at the bottom looking up to him in despair; but an intermediate companion, who is only a few steps above, can assist him with a helping hand, can show him where to put his foot safely; and now urging, now encouraging, can draw him up to any height within his own attainment. (11-13)

This hierarchy of pedagogy, plotted on a vertical axis, is especially pertinent to the tableau depicted in the poem's illustrated plate where the nurse bends down towards the small child, apparently in order to elevate his arms, and the older child aims upwards in an effort to elevate the descending projectile. Whether by means of the bipolar hierarchy characterized in Newbery's preface or by means of the more mediated stratification typical of the Edgeworths' prefaces, children's chapbooks of the eighteenth century invoke a dual audience. Even if we read Blake's poem as a parody of these structural conventions of the chapbook rather than as simply instantiating them, the text still implies a bipartite audience. It is not that Blake's Songs in general and this poem in particular invoke these readers literally, but rather that they figure such reading positions symbolically. By identifying itself as a version of the chapbook Blake's Songs structurally projects these reading positions.

That these poems formally address themselves both to a juvenile persona and to an adult figure is indicated not only by their often patronizing tone and the simplicity of their vocabulary, which might in any case be purely ironic elements of the text, but also in that earlier instances of the chapbook explicitly target children as a substantial component of their audience. So many pieces of popular literature throughout the eighteenth century and earlier address themselves to children, at least rhetorically, that they seem to compose a fairly stable genre. William Sloane's Checklist catalogues 261 such publications, excluding primers designed specifically for use in schools, between 1557 and 1710. The most influential texts of this kind published after 1710 include William Ronksley's The Child's Week's Work of 1712, Isaac Watts's Divine and Moral Songs for Children, appearing in 1715, and Charles Wesley's Hymns for Children of 1763. Significant instances of this genre that appear more immediately before Blake's Songs and that might consequently be read as its direct antecedents include the Edgeworths' Practical Education: The History of Harry and Lucy, first published in 1780, Mrs Barbauld's Lessons for Children from Two to Three Years Old of 1780, and her Hymns in Prose for Children of 1781, Thomas Day's The History of Sandford and Merton: A Work Intended for the Use of Children, and the prolific John Newbery's The History of Tommy Playlove and Jacky Lovebook: wherein is shown the Superiority of Virtue over Vice, both published initially in 1783. Since many of these works incorporate a preface evidently addressed to adult readers, along with a text that seems specifically targeted on children, the eventuality of co-reading seems to be structurally implied by this form. Even if Blake's Songs, and especially "Songs of Experience," is, as I have started to suggest, a parody of the children's chapbook, ironizing its pieties and certitudes by complicating the moral that it is supposed to communicate unproblematically, this parody nonetheless employs the device of team reading that is a feature of the form being satirized. The parody is, therefore, an intimate one. Moreover, such a parody may emphasize this dual readership, because it works by implying both a literal and an ironic reading of the text that might each be correlated with the innocent and more experienced readers invoked by the text's generic identity.

IV.

Having followed, in the earlier discussion of the poem, the main contours of the criticism focused on "The Fly," and having allowed my own account of the poem to emerge largely by contrast and by implication, I must explain how the poem's invocation of a reader constitutes a poem that is different from the poem produced by a criticism perceiving no consistent invocation of the reader. I suggest that to factor a reading persona into a discussion of "The Fly" is to construct a relation between reader and narrator that can in turn reconstruct the specific relation between narrator and fly that critical consensus has begun to stabilize, but has done so destructively. Insofar as the poem invokes an active and self-conscious reader, any predications made about the poem's narrator will be seen by the predicating reader to reflect on him- or herself. This version of the poem contrasts with certain other critical accounts of it by transferring to the reader any irony that the poem would otherwise be seen to direct at the narrator. Any moral judgments directed by this reader at the narrator will, in the context of a chapbook that works to teach moral discrimination, tend to return as questions about the reader's own ethics in making that moral judgment. Having merely hinted at an alternative narrator who might be constituted by a practice of reading more conscious of its own risks than either Hirsch's congratulation of the narrator or Wagenknecht's indictment, I will now supplement those hints with a fuller characterization that offers a more direct statement of the alternative than this narrator poses.

Whether we read the first stanza so that the fly dies or whether we read the fly deflecting, or at least escaping, the thoughtless hand, the remaining stanzas can provide a narrator who postulates an identification with an actual or potential victim only to question it. The second stanza comprises two questions. These often seem to be understood as merely rhetorical, and as thereby affirmative of their interrogatives, but they might also be something other than rhetorical.

Am not I A fly like thee? Or art not thou A man like me?

If we assume that the fly survives, then the second-person address in these two questions has a real destination denied if we make the opposite assumption that the fly is dead. To read this stanza so that it is composed of actual questions is to invite ourselves to ask the question of whether they imply a positive answer, as a rhetorical question would, whether they beg a negative response, or whether their motivation is neutral. The relation between the two questions can also be an issue, since the word "Or" (which relates or dislocates these questions) could mean "or to put the same thing another way," but could also mean "or should I formulate this first question in another way?" The second question might be a simple repetition of the first one or it might be an interrogation of it.(9) Depending on whether we read the word "Or" as such a reinforcement or as a questioning of the process of asking these questions, the narrator appears as either assertive or reflective.

How the narrator appears in the third stanza is determined largely by how the drama of the first stanza has been configured. If the fly is presumed to die, the narrator's notion that he resembles it by dancing, drinking, and singing is palpably spurious, since this is exactly what the fly cannot now do. If, however, the fly is allowed to survive and even win the encounter, the narrator's attempt to identify with it becomes an ennobling personification instead of an effort at self-justification by replacing the victim. Assuming a destroyed fly correlates the phrase "dance,/And drink, & sing" with the ironic "dance & sing" of the victimized child in "The Chimney-Sweeper," while assuming a victorious fly identifies the above phrase with the words "drink, & sing" as they form part of the positive proposals made by the juvenile narrator in "The Little Vagabond." Not only the internal relations of "The Fly," but also its external relations to other poems in the sequence are at stake in how the poem is construed.

The narrator of the fourth stanza can be manifested, on the one hand, as a callous, and probably empiricist, philosopher who traffics in such abstract categories as "thought" and "want of thought," or, on the other hand, as a narrator who carefully anatomizes a specific act by allocating the property of "thought" to his own role and "want of thought" to the lot of the fly. And the narrator's recognition of a difference, which is also an inequality, in the whole transaction is foregrounded if we read the condition introduced by "If" as extending only as far as "breath" but excluding "want of thought," so that the stanza comprises not two parallel conditional clauses, but two separate clauses representing "thought" as the narrator's luxurious option and "want of thought" as the fly's probable fate within that luxury. In this reading, the second clause would effectively be a parenthesis between the conditional clause and the main clause that opens the next stanza.

However we construe the fourth stanza, the narrator of the final stanza is either confident of the proposition that he deduces from the premises of that penultimate stanza, whether they be mutually universal or alleged to be applicable to narrator and fly respectively, or he is vulnerably unsure of what conclusion to draw. If we try to reconstruct a hypothetical reading experience of this stanza, we might suppose that the inversion of subject and verb in the line "Then am I" signals the introduction of a question and that the alternative condition staged by the word "or" then compounds this signal by posing a binary opposition within which the narrator is fluctuating, perhaps interrogatively. Only at the end of the sentence, which does not feature a question mark, can this hypothetical reading exclude the eventuality of a question by resolving the syntax into the equally available, but ultimately more probable, format of an indicative statement. Resolving any momentary alternatives in the sentence into this inevitable indicative format again involves a recourse to the literary trope of anastrophe that allowed the thoughtless hand to brush away the fly and that now enables "am I/A happy fly" to mean "I am a happy fly." The difference between these inversions in the first and final stanzas is that anastrophe insists on its profile as a stylistic form conditioning the grammar far less in the first stanza than it does in the last. It seems that we have less choice about grammar at the end of the poem. What we can recognize, nonetheless, in this final stanza is a momentary manifestation of that more benign and diffident narrator that we can understand the poem as a whole to provide - or at least not to deny. Rather than immediately concluding that his happiness is as independent of his own survival as it is of the fly's, and so proving his case by appearing so insensitive as to be dead, the narrator appears instead, at least for a moment, as one who questions the oblivion of that thoughtlessness which identifies this oblivion with death itself.

Although the poem can be said to provide, at different junctures, thoroughly different narrators who can thus be fashioned into coherent alternatives, there is no necessity that these characters be so rigorously polarized throughout. While the narrator who kills the fly and the one who does not may be mutually exclusive, the destructive narrator is not incompatible with the one who then doubts his or her identification with the victim even as she or he proposes it. The opposed alternatives in the grammar that I have been suggesting need not be correlated to distill a perfect narrator on the one hand and a highly imperfect one on the other, because a narrative of moral progress, or degeneration, can be interpolated to allow less consistent narrators to emerge. While my own reading, much more than even Hirsch's, invests in the extreme of the virtuous narrator, much of the criticism follows the more promiscuous trajectory, described above, to find a changing narrator. Pagliaro (78-79), for instance, finds a speaker who knows more about what s/he is saying at the beginning of the poem than she or he does at the end; Wagenknecht (109), on the other hand, reads the final two stanzas as more sagacious than the preceding three because they are the speaker's version of what the fly might say to him.

What compels my reading to commit itself to the extreme of the virtuous narrator, even as it claims to be able to account grammatically for other trajectories, is that none of these readings acknowledges its implication in a grammar that will accommodate a range of options that stops, or starts, with this extreme. Also enjoining a commitment to this extreme reading is its implication that to read otherwise, once this specific choice is constituted, is, first, to participate in the fly's destruction by arranging the grammar so that the narrator kills it and, second, to repeat the crime by assassinating the narrator's character in the same grammatical arrangement. Once we acknowledge an alternative to this grammar, to read otherwise is also to abandon a narrator whom we have abetted in destruction and are now in turn destroying. But we may find at least one obvious objection to the construction of a diplomatic narrator: such diplomacy might be no more than a self-idealization performed by the reader. We behold what we would like to think we are. What answers this objection is that the alternative, ventured by Wagenknecht and company, produces a self-idealization of the reader that is similar, but actually more reprehensible because contingent on a denigration of the narrator.

The same gestures whereby we deny the reader's agency in the text can be seen in how criticism has treated the illustrated plate of "The Fly," and specifically in its account of the relations between text and illustration. Although Wagenknecht usefully observes that "The Fly is unique among the Songs in that it is etched in two columns" and that the second column is the fly's fictional "rejoinder," he does not consider that this typographical departure might allow us to read the poem from left to right and then downwards instead of downwards and then across the page.(10) This is an arrangement that would yield the following sequence:

Little Fly Thy summer's play, My thoughtless hand Has brush'd away.

If thought is life And strength & breath: And the want Of thought is death;

Am not I A fly like thee? Or art not thou A man like me?

Then am I A happy fly, If I live, Or if I die.

For I dance, And drink & sing: Till some blind hand Shall brush my wing.

Precluding and hence overriding the possibility of this sequence is the typographical and logical convention in Blake criticism that insists on a reproduction of the relevant plate accompanied by a full quotation within the critical text of what thereby becomes the lyric. Subject to principles of publishing economics as they allow only short "lyrics" to be quoted in full, this convention is especially powerful in criticism of Songs of Innocence and of Experience; indeed, Wagenknecht and Pagliaro both rely on this convention.

The imperative that drives this process of abstracting "a poem" from Blake's texts is the institutional necessity of casting them as fundamentally literary. Despite the Urizenic implications of this process, which recent work on the ideological possibilities of Blake's printing process serves to emphasize, much criticism, including to a large extent this essay, continues to take its cues about the ideology of the graphic text from the linguistic text.(11) What accordingly licenses the customary vertical reading of "The Fly" is the purely linguistic version of its text featured in the "Notebook" and more closely resembling the familiar poem produced by a vertical reading than it does the horizontal sequence just presented. But only if we ignore the intertext of revisionary codes and graphic protocols separating as well as conjoining the "Notebook" and the Songs of Experience can we allow the text of the "Notebook" to authorize the precise typography of "The Fly" in the Songs. To allow the "Notebook" to write the Songs themselves, by arguing that the "draft" in the "Notebook" is more similar to the accepted version of the poem in the Songs than it is to the horizontal version of the poem, is also to ignore the considerable differences that still obtain between the draft and the accepted version of the "finished" poem.

In a sense, this vertical reading is more sensitive to the graphic text than is the suggested horizontal reading. To read vertically may well be to confer a literary authority on the "Notebook," but it is also to accommodate that authority to the exigencies of the graphic image by supposing that the sequence of the lyric is determined, or at least indicated, by the boughs of the two trees as they separate the stanzas horizontally, but allow a space for vertical access between them. There are, however, other plates in Songs of Experience in which the branches of trees intervene between stanzas without punctuating the reading sequence so stringently. In "The Tyger," for instance, branches figure on a horizontal axis without apparently arresting the reading. Understanding "The Fly" as though its sequence is signaled arboreally presupposes a particular relation between linguistic and graphic text whereby the former is harmoniously framed by the latter; the lyric effectively doubles as the foliage of the trees.(12) Although this graphic profile of the linguistic text is sanctioned by the conventional pun on "leaves," since the term refers to both foliage and pages, there is a signal alternative. Instead of figuring as blooms or leaves and so forming a composite with the graphics, the lyric of "The Fly" might be seen as a displaced skywriting hovering around those graphics with a spatial uncertainty matching the logical indeterminacy of its relation to them.

The significance of a horizontal reading of "The Fly" is that it stages the space between stanzas as a place for the reader-in-the-text who must arbitrate the lyric's sequence. That the stanzas themselves do not lexically resist either of these formal possibilities consolidates the power and responsibility of this reader. The main difference a horizontal configuration of the lyric produces within its plot is a more tentative identification between narrator and fly than that proposed by a vertical reading. While this usually-supposed vertical arrangement asks the questions

Am not I A fly like thee? Or art not thou A man like me?

immediately after the contact between the fly and the thoughtless hand, the horizontal format prefaces these questions with hypothetical conditions that thus seem to limit the assertiveness of the questions and their implication of an identity. If one of these readings is any more plausible than the other, it seems to me that the horizontal sequence produces a lyric that avoids the problematic transition from the stanza beginning "If thought is life" to the one beginning "Then am I/A happy fly" that many critics consider the most difficult part of the poem.(13)

What licenses the whole focus throughout this essay on matters of grammar is, as already implied, the genre of the chapbook. Like earlier instances of this genre, Blake's Songs seems to offer itself as an occasion for the development of reading competence at the same time as it works to inculcate morals. How the Songs in turn differs from, say, Isaac Watts's Divine Songs or Mrs Barbauld's Hymns in Prose for Children is not by proposing morals more heterodox than those of these earlier works, but by providing a grammar that reflects back conventional moral judgments so that they become questions about the first person ethics of delivering such moral pronouncements. Since "The Fly," specifically, supplies a grammar that can accommodate a presumption of the narrator's innocence, as well as a presumption of his guilt, any judgment that does not recognize its grounding on a mere presumption, whichever way the judgment may ultimately incline, is more destructive than the act that it evaluates. To presume that the narrator is unequivocally innocent is more destructive than the narrator's action, not only because the narrator is, in this scenario, innocent, but also because this scenario is based on an aggressive suppression of any equivocation about this innocence. To presume that the narrator is guilty, however, is more destructive than the guilty action itself because it is a presumption that claims to be predicated on a position of knowledge even as it ignores any contra-indications in the grammar. Although an inclination towards either presumption is thus potentially damaging, I have weighted my reading of the poem towards an assumption of innocence because previous critical accounts have inclined towards the opposing premise.

It is not only the poem's grammar that provides a critical perspective on efforts to read it. The format of the children's chapbook also offers a standpoint beyond the text that allows this very standpoint to be observed as it collapses into the poem. By projecting for itself two readers, a child and an adult, the chapbook allows for a reading persona able to observe itself because it is composed of two parts. In this image of a reading persona, just as an adult oversees the difficulties a child might be expected to encounter in construing the text and interpreting the moral, so any difficulties that this adult might confront in this moral grammar are monitored by the child. Each of these reading positions seems to watch the other becoming absorbed into the text. While projected by the genre of the children's chapbook, this scenario of mutual scrutiny is also depicted in the graphic in the intersecting gazes of the woman and child. Since to read the poem is also to watch oneself reading, because of the mutual monitoring implied by the chapbook's pedagogy, whereby child and adult observe one another's reading practices, the educational process can become a two-way street in which experience is not only taught to the child by the adult, but innocence is reciprocally conveyed to the adult by the child. Enabled to watch ourselves reading the poem, we need not gain our experience of the text at a cost borne by the fly and the narrator. Subject to an invigilation from the perspective of innocence, the reading experience can avoid guilt by allowing the fly to survive and by consequently exonerating the narrator.

Whether this adult reader of Blake's Songs is understood as an agent mediating between a real chapbook and a juvenile narrator or as the ultimate destination of a chapbook that is childless because a parody of the genre, these are questions that do not affect the Songs' figuring of a dual readership. Either way, this text affords a critical perspective on how it is read by implying, parodically or otherwise, this dual audience. It is, moreover, this inherent faculty of self-monitoring that prevents such a model of reading from immediately resembling those other critical readings, castigated above, that seek to empower themselves over the text. None of my argument is to imply, of course, that the poem cannot be read, as it has tended to be, so that a costly experience, rather than innocence, is what the narrator and reader exchange between themselves. My own reading is not concerned to disqualify other readings, but rather to indicate their cost. Just as the art of lying seems to be taught in both directions, from adult to child and vice versa, in Wordsworth's "Anecdote for Fathers," so the exchanges between reader and narrator in "The Fly" could, as other criticism of the poem has shown, be a traffic in mutually destructive and self-destructive experience. Once the question "Whodunit?" is posed about events in "The Fly," however, the versatile grammar of the poem and the self-monitoring reading persona offered by the form of the chapbook answer this question with another: "Who didn't?"

Notes

1 See Harold Pagliaro (77-81), Harold Bloom (19-20), and David Wagenknecht (106-10).

2 William Blake, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (23). All subsequent quotations from Blake's works will be taken from this edition, and the references to that edition will be found in this text.

3 Stanley Gardner (128-29) insists that the poem must be read at least twice, as a matter of empirical necessity, in order to be apprehended at all.

4 This poem, with its own syntactic versatility, immediately precedes "The Fly" in the sequence of Songs of Experience in at least some of the copies that Blake produced.

5 The evidence for Blake's possession of a copy of Chapman's Homer, and for which existing copy is the likeliest candidate, is weighed by Robert N. Essick, "William Blake's copy of Chapman's Homer."

6 Anne Kostelanetz Melior effectively endorses Hirsch's reading. See especially 334.

7 See especially Hirsch's castigation of Blake (240-41).

8 Of all the criticism devoted to Songs of Innocence and of Experience it is Zachary Leader's that makes the strongest case for these texts as versions, often parodic, of the chapbook. See especially Leader's historical account of children's literature (1-36).

9 Essick also reads a distinction between these two questions (William Blake 128-29).

10 The Book of Urizen is another text, exceptionally among Blake's works, that exploits the format of dual columns.

11 Stephen Leo Carr's argument would probably gloss the construction of a largely literary Blake as an effort to deny Blake's project of difference which is prosecuted by the incessant variations among copies of the printed plates. According to Carr, the graphical aspects of Blake's texts and the printing process by which they are produced, multiply these differences massively. The contrast between engraving, as practiced by Blake, and letterpress printing is outlined by Morris Eaves (186-90).

12 It is this general presupposition of a harmony between text and design that W. J. T. Mitchell resists (57-81). This is a resistance to which I happily subscribe.

13 See John E. Grant (42). The difficulties that Jean Hagstrum (380) locates in the poem's final stanza seem actually to devolve onto the relations between this stanza and the penultimate one.

Works Cited

Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Rev. ed. Ed. David V. Erdman. Berkeley: U of California P, 1982.

Bloom, Harold. Introduction. William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Carr, Stephen Leo. "Illuminated Printing: Toward a Logic of Difference" Unnam'd Forms: Blake and Textuality. Ed. Nelson Hilton and Thomas A. Vogler. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.

Chapman's Homer: The Iliad, the Odyssey and the Lesser Homerica. Ed. Allardyce Nicoll. Vol. 1. Bollingen Ser. XLI. New York: Pantheon, 1956.

Donne, John. Poetical Works. Ed. Herbert J. C. Grierson. 1971. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.

Eaves, Morris. The Counter-arts Conspiracy: Art and Industry in the Age of Blake. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992.

Edgeworth, Maria. Harry and Lucy Concluded; being the Last Part of Early Lessons. Vol 1. 2nd ed. London: Printed for R. Hunter et al., 1827.

Essick, Robert N. William Blake and the Language of Adam. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1989.

-----. "William Blake's copy of Chapman's Homer," English Language Notes 27.3 (1990): 27-33.

Gardner, Stanley. Blake's "Innocence and Experience" Retraced. London: Athlone: St Martin's, 1986.

Gillham, D.C. Blake's Contrary States: The "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" as Dramatic Poems. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1966.

Grant, John E. "Interpreting Blake's 'The Fly.'" Blake: a Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Northrop Frye. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1966.

Hagstrum, Jean. "The Fly." William Blake: Essays for S. Foster Damon. Ed. Alvin H. Rosenfeld. Providence: Brown UP, 1969.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake. New Haven: Yale UP, 1964.

Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Alexander Pope. London: George Bell and Sons, 1881.

Leader, Zachary. Reading Blake's Songs. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.

Mellor, Anne Kostelanetz. Blake's Human Form Divine. Berkeley: U of California P, 1974.

Mitchell, W. J. T. "Blake's Composite Art." Blake's Visionary Forms Dramatic. Ed. David V. Erdman and John E. Grant. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970.

Newbery, John. A Little Pretty Pocket-Book. Facs. with an intro. and bib. by M. F. Thwaite. London: Oxford UP, 1966.

Oldys, William. "On a Fly Drinking From His Cup." The Oxford Anthology of English Poetry. Vol. 1. Ed. John Wain. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990. 525

Pagliaro, Harold. Selfhood and Redemption in Blake's "Songs." University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1987.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. Kenneth Muir. 1964. London: Methuen, 1978.

Sloane, William. Children's Books in England and America in the Seventeenth Century: A History and Checklist. New York: Columbia UP, 1955.

Wagenknecht, David. Blake's Night: William Blake and the Idea of Pastoral. Cambridge: The Bellknap P of Harvard UP, 1973.

Wain, John, ed. The Oxford Anthology of English Poetry. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.

Michael Simpson is a visiting scholar in the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin. He received his Ph.D. from Cambridge University, England, and has taught at St. Lawrence University and Colgate University. He is the author of Closet Performances: Political Exhibition and Prohibition in the Dramas of Byron and Shelley (Stanford: Stanford University Press, forthcoming).
COPYRIGHT 1996 Northern Illinois University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Simpson, Michael
Publication:Style
Date:Jun 22, 1996
Words:9194
Previous Article:Rhyme, the icons of sound, and the Middle English 'Pearl.'(Rhetoric and Poetics)
Next Article:Windows of focalization: deconstructing and reconstructing a narratological concept.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |