I was a bit dismissive of the verse. As I hadn’t had the chance to take the book back to the library, it was still lying around so last night I picked it up and started reading again and it was wonderful. (Never trust my first responses -- I keep telling myself that but I don’t learn.)
It’s not just the Blakeian outcries against injustice; he’s terrific too on, as it were, the physics and mechanics of phenomena that fall outside ordinary experience, such as Queen Mab (the Fairy Queen), her chariot or ‘car’ and they way they appear and move. In these passages there seems a specificity that’s unlike anything I can think of from earlier centuries and that I suppose reflects the keen new scientific awareness.
On p.4 of this 1990 facsimile edition (Woodstock Books, Oxford) there’s this -- isn’t it wonderful? (This is before the physics and mechanics -- I'll come to that.)
Behold the chariot of the Fairy Queen!
Celestial coursers paw the unyielding air;
Their filmy pennons at her word they furl,
And stop obedient to the reins of light:
These the Queen of spells drew in,
She spread a charm around the spot,
And leaning graceful from the etherial car,
Long did she gaze, and silently,
Upon the slumbering maid.
I'm surprised some marketing genius hasn’t seized on that and given us the Vauxhall Etherial.
That ‘leaning graceful’ is so good. ‘Reins of light’ I think is a new sort of detail characteristic of the new scientific spirit (later 18th into 19th centuries).
The poem is a mixture of familiar iambic pentameter stanzas and, less often and more near the beginning of the poem, a lyric form of shorter lines of which I don’t know the name, if there is one. It seems the pentameters are best suited for the more technical, if etherial, descriptions. Here’s a lovely pentameter stanza followed by a lovely lyric one. (I realise I'm not quite sure what ‘lyric’ means in poetry.)
The Fairy’s frame was slight, yon fibrous cloud,
That catches but the palest tinge of even,
And which the straining eye can hardly seize
When melting into eastern twilight’s shadow,
Were scarce so thin, so slight; but the fair star
That gems the glittering coronet of morn,
Sheds not a light so mild, so powerful,
As that which, bursting from the Fairy’s form,
Spread a purpureal halo round the scene,
Yet with an undulating motion,
Swayed to her outline gracefully.
From her celestial car
The Fairy Queen descended,
And thrice she waved her wand
Circled with wreaths of amaranth:
Her thin and misty form
Moved with the morning air,
And the clear silver tones,
As thus she spoke, were such
As are unheard by all but gifted ear.
Then we get her first speech, magnificent in its dignity. Feeble end there, and that extended Homeric simile form (’sheds not a light so... as that which...’) is something I'm glad poets eventually ditched. But I love the way the light from the fairy undulates and sways, and how her form moves with the misty air. She’s there but only ‘filmy’, like medieval angels that were a bit flesh but a lot spirit.
(Light, by the way, for the builders of Gothic cathedrals, was the nearest perceptible thing to imperceptible spirit and God. I learned this from my late friend Barry Bell, professor of architecture at Carleton University, Ottawa, who once asked his group, ‘Are you guys familiar with the works of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite?’ They weren’t and he want on to explain who this early Christian theologian -- thought, wrongly, to be the St Denis of the first Gothic Church, in Paris -- originated this theory of light.)
Barry’s a huge loss. Three or four years ago he was in his prime intellectually: he’d just got married, had moved into their new house in Toronto and was killed in a stupid accident. There’s a small group of dead people, beyond the immediate circle of loved ones, who I miss, and he’s one of them.