The Concrete Utopia of Poetry: Blake's "A Poison Tree"

 Originally Appeared in: Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism | Published: 1985


Seldom does the question of lyric and society get beyond “extratextual” considerations, principally the role of social and political ideas in a poet’s biographical and intellectual development or in the poetry’s thematic content. Marxist criticism mirrors this deficit by relegating poetry to the margins of its own investigations of social and aesthetic experience. William Blake’s poetry encourages us to counter the habits of Marxist and non-Marxist criticism alike by recognizing that society and politics shape the very project of a poet’s work and the inner dynamics of poetic language itself, its processes of figuration, its status as a linguistic act, its forms and techniques, its effects within the reading process.

Blake was a poet of the volatile decades of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, writing at the very point when the democratic revolutions were being institutionalized as the class rule of the bourgeoisie. The claims of freedom and liberation that gave impetus to poets and novelists in this period were rapidly coming up against the necessity of establishing the new economic order of capitalism. Blake’s vital contribution to our cultural heritage lies in the response that his poetry made to this changing relation of art to the evolution of bourgeois society. He was also a poet who himself constantly reflected on the political and historical possibilities of the imagination. For Blake, poetry is the active imposing of imagination or fantasy in the struggles against dominant values and institutions. Casting the poet in the double role of visionary and voice of condemnation, he attributed both a Utopian and a negative power to poetic language.

It is this interplay of the Utopian and the negative, of imagination and critique, that makes Blake’s poetry resonate with the social and aesthetic theories of thinkers like Ernst Bloch and Herbert Marcuse Walter Benjamin and T. W. Adorno. In this paper, I will test some road perspectives on art that have come from this tradition of “critical Marxism” against a reading of a poem from the Songs of Experience. The reading owes as much to hermeneutics and poststructuralism as it does to the aesthetic writings of the Frankfurt School.

From Bloch I have taken the phrase “concrete Utopia.” Bloch meant by this that Utopian possibilities are latent in the freedom and self-organization which social groups and classes possess, intermittently and fragmentedly, in their everyday existence, political experiences, myths, and artistic endeavors. These latent tendencies have as their heritage all the unfinished or abortive efforts in history to extend justice and happiness. The heritage of Utopia is thus a discontinuous history, one that must be constructed from cultural traditions and the popular struggles and revolts of the past. The question we can draw from Bloch’s reflections is this: In what ways is poetry a bearer of Utopian hope, of this historical latency which is at once within and beyond society?

From Marcuse I will borrow a thesis about art and literature that he advanced in his last published work, The Aesthetic Dimension: “The inner logic of the work of art terminates in the emergence of another reason, another sensibility, which defy the rationality and sensibility incorporated in the dominant social institutions.” The phrase “terminates in the emergence of’ suggests, first, that art is Utopian insofar as it anticipates new orders of reason and sensibility that can be secured only through political action and social transformation, and, second, that this Utopian anticipation is nonetheless concrete insofar as it stems f rom what is realized aesthetically in the artwork. Marcuse’s thesis leads to a second question about lyric and society: How does the “inner logic” of the poem at the same time manifest a counterlogic against the constraining interactions organized by society?

While Bloch and Marcuse help to establish the aims of interpretation and to frame the questions that a socially critical study of poetry needs to address, their own aesthetic reflections rest on suppositions open to challenge from many directions in the recent theory of interpretation and art. Bloch maintains that great artworks are part ideology, part authentic Utopia. The first task of analysis is to dissolve the ideological shell of the work by exposing the ways it serves particular rather than general interests and legitimates the forms of domination prevalent in its own society; once this ideological shell is dissolved, the Utopian kernel of the work is supposed to shine through, a radiant core of meanings and images expressing the strivings and hopes of humanity. Bloch’s conception of interpretation shares with the hermeneutics of Heidegger and Gadamer the insight that cultural meanings come forward only from historically situated works and are appropriated only in historically situated contexts, but he nevertheless tends to view the valid meanings of culture as a semantic storehouse that preserves itself intact across historical periods and epochs. Hence the questionable notion that interpretation can with assurance separate the valid and true aspect of a work from its ideological and false aspect. Contemporary criticism, in the wake of Heidegger and more recently of poststructuralist and deconstructive criticism, raises an inescapable problem concerning our own reception of the art and literature of the past, namely, that there is no ground of meaning or foothold in truth on the basis of which we can with certainty extract the valid significations of a work.

Marcuse’s aesthetic reflections accentuate the unity of form. Throughout his work he transcribes into socially critical terms the aesthetic experience that was the basis of bourgeois aesthetics since Schiller. Marcuse attributes the Utopian and negative power of art to the sharp contrast that individuals experience between the unity or harmony they apprehend in the artwork and the disharmony and conflict that characterize the social relations they encounter in everyday life. The notion of the artwork’s formal harmony has been contested by an array of contemporary theories of the signifying and formal dynamics of literary texts. The transaction between writing and reading, between the poetic text and its reception, can no longer, I believe, be fruitfully described as the subject’s inward appropriation of an outwardly realized harmony of sensuous and symbolic elements….

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