Reading William Blake and William Wordsworth back-to-back brings to mind the similarities and differences between them. As they are contemporaries, and both are considered key figures in the Romantic movement in poetry, it’s natural to assume that they have much in common. But any close reading of the two reveals a different story. G.K. Chesterton sums it up in his biography of Blake:
It is common to connect Blake and Wordsworth because of their ballads about babies and sheep. They were utterly opposite. If Wordsworth was the Poet of Nature, Blake was specially the Poet of Anti Nature.
Geoffrey H Hartman, in his essay A Poet’s Progress: Wordsworth and the Via Naturaliter Negativa (1962), says:
A number of readers have felt that his [ie Wordsworth’s] poetry honours and even worships Nature; and in this they have the support of Blake, a man so sensitive to any trace of ‘Natural Religion’ that he blamed some verses of Wordsworth’s for a bowel complaint which almost killed him.
But this wasn’t the only respect in which they differed. Blake was appalled by the following passage in Wordsworth’s poem The Excursion:
For I must tread on shadowy ground, must sink
Deep – and, aloft ascending, breathe in worlds
To which the heaven of heavens is but a veil.
All strength – all terror, single or in bands,
That ever was put forth in personal form –
Jehovah – with his thunder, and the choir
Of shouting Angels, and the empyreal thrones –
I pass them unalarmed. Not Chanos, not
The darkest pit of lowest Erebus,
Nor aught of blinder vacancy, scooped out
By help of dreams – can breed such fear and awe
As fall upon us often when we look
Into our Minds, into the Mind of Man –
My haunt, and the main region of my song.
Blake’s retort: ‘Does Mr Wordsworth think his mind can surpass Jehovah?’
Further light is shed on Blake’s attitude to his great Romantic contemporary in the annotations he wrote into his copy of Wordsworth’s 1815 Poems:
I see in Wordsworth the natural man rising up against the spiritual man continually, and then he is no poet but a heathen philosopher: at enmity against all true poetry or inspiration.
Natural objects always did, and now do, weaken, deaden and obliterate imagination in men. Wordsworth must know that what he writes valuable is not to be found in Nature. Read Michelangelo’s sonnet (as translated by Wordsworth, beginning ‘No mortal object…’)
On the other hand, Wordsworth had something altogether more positive to say about Blake:
There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.