Wow! My first Blake poem and we’re smacked bang in the face with some scintillatingly beautiful imagery.
He paints the night sky with an image of Venus’ constant silver glow gently coaxing the world to bed and bringing stillness and silence to the world. Its light is positioned as being protective and keeping out the evils of the world, but only for so long. The poem ends with a plea for Venus to stay and protect his flock from the dangers of the night.
As always, the poem isn’t that simple and where Blake positions Venus, we can also see an analogy relating to mankind’s relationship with God.
dusk – the moment before total darkness of night has descended;
dun – dull, grey/brown colour.
Thou fair-hair’d angel of the evening,
Now, whilst the sun rests on the mountains, light
Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown
Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!
Smile on our loves, and while thou drawest the
Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew
On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes
In timely sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on
The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver. Soon, full soon,
Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,
And then the lion glares through the dun forest:
The fleeces of our flock are cover’d with
Thy sacred dew: protect them with thin influence!
William Blake (1757-1827)
Another contender for the title of GOAT (at least in British eyes), Blake actually enjoyed very little renown during his life and only posthumously became recognised as one of the seminal names in poetry.
Although he had an interesting life, I simply haven’t got time to give you any sort of overview. Instead you will have to be content with information relating specifically to this poem.
Blake was deeply religious, but was quite passionately anti-organised religion. Throughout his life he claimed to have had religious visions and considered religion to be something of a personal experience rather than something to be dictated by a priest. In fact, he castigated organised religion for its constant desire to ‘lays his curse on the fairest joys’ or, in other words, to disapprove of all the enjoyable elements of life – a suggestion that some have related to his more relaxed attitudes towards love, marriage and sexuality.
In this poem he not only creates a pastoral scene of splendid natural beauty, which he ties to sexuality. He also appeals directly to the Big Man Upstairs to keep him on the straight and narrow.
This is another poem that has a clear dual theme of the restorative power and beauty of sleep, while at the same time acknowledging a religious power that is represented through the protective power of the light in the dark.
This poem is a sonnet of appreciation and love directed towards the brightest star in the night sky. This star is in fact a planet and not a star. Although it looks like a star, you can usually tell it is not because it is brighter than all the rest and has a constant light rather than the twinkle twinkling of actual stars off in the far reaches of the cosmos.
The opening line immediately connects this star with the idea of divinity and heaven by personifying it as an angel. Blake proceeds to create devastatingly beautiful imagery of this star emerging as the sun dips down below the mountains, as Venus becomes visible as the sun sets. This beauty is seen as a form of loving embrace that soothes us or watches over us as we retreat to our beds.
We also have a sexual connection as Venus looks out ‘on our loves’ and as we are rustling under the sheets, closing out the day and creates a romantically beautiful and sensuously calm scene for our slumber/rustling. This consists of a sprinkling of silver light and the star bringing the wind to a gentle, lightly rippling rest upon the water/world.
As the poem develops Blake fears the withdrawl of Venus’ light as the planet rotates and we (in the Westerner hemisphere) can no longer see it. With the loss of this protective light, the wolf and the lion begin to range and hunt, which represents spiritual dangers and the temptations that many lead us to stray from our religious morality.
However, Blake feels like the lingering silver dew left by Venus is enough to protect those bathed in it. This clearly links to spirituality and the light cast upon the darkness can be seen as the strength to resist temptation provided by religious faith and morality.
Language and techniques
You may have notice that this poem is a sonnet and thus its title ‘To the Evening Star’ is a loving dedication to something Blake admires. In this case it is not the star (or planet), but the divine role he ascribes to it that is the subject of his affection.
While the use of ‘evening star’ to represent Venus is not as familiar an expression nowadays as it was in Blake’s day, the term is still used to represent Venus’ status as the first visible star. It is also known as the wandering star as it seems to move more quickly across the sky than the distant real stars and disappears more quickly from sight as the Earth rotates us away from it.
The star/planet is personified in the opening line as a ‘fair hair’d angel’, which immediately connects it with purity and beauty, so much so that this object is associated with royalty with a ‘radiant crown’ and deified as an angelic presence. Blake’s develops this celestial essence assigned to Venus by describing it in terms that make it seem to watch over and protect the human race.
The first of these roles is to cast light on the Earth when the Sun disappears. Blake uses a vivid image of Venus appearing just as the ‘sun rests on the mountains’, with its light protecting the Earth from complete darkness with a smooth transition from daylight to its ‘bright torch of love’. As a torch clearly this light is weaker than the Sun, but a torch helps us find our way in the darkness. Here Blake creates a duality of meaning as this is both literal light being cast on the world and also him referencing faith and religious belief as being lights guiding us away from the dangers of the dark or temptation.
Perhaps you could also connect this to sexual shenanigans. It is a light ‘of love’ and ‘smiles upon our evening bed’ and ‘our loves’. Thus the light guides us to bed and watches over our loving. Perverse stars/planets, that is why I would always suggest drawing your curtains! This notion is further supported by the fact that Venus was also the Roman Goddess of Love and Beauty.
As the sonnet continues it actually becomes clear that the Evening Star protects us perversity as it soothes us to bed as it draws the ‘blue curtain’ closed and transitions us to night. As it does this it scatters a ‘silver dew’ upon the Earth on all things that find ‘timely sleep’ and thus avoid the darkness and thus temptation. Literally this dew is the silvery light cast upon the Earth by the light of the stars, which is then given a physical residue with the dew or wetness we find upon the grass upon a spring morning.
As the star closes the curtains on the day and casts protective dew across the Earth, so to does it bring the world to peace. By its influence even the ‘west wind sleep[s] on the lake’, leaving an image of a gently ‘glimmering’ reflecting off the calmed waters of the lake. All these elements not only combines to form a vivid and majestic piece of natural imagery, but also reflect a calm and serene mood and atmosphere to the scene.
Why is this protection needed? Blake symbolises the dangers of temptation or straying from the path of the faithful with the ferocity of the animal kingdom. In the dark the ‘wolf rages’ and the ‘lion glares’ through the foliage whilst stalking its prey. Both these metaphors represent the dangers that lurk, hidden in the darkness. The use of the word ‘rages’ suggest these dangers are associated with hatred, anger and bitterness. The animals used to represent this danger are those we would most associate with ruthlessness, stealth and ferocity and thus we should reflect that Blake wants us to recognise the magnitude of the dangers for those straying from the path of the faithful.
If we connect these ideas with sexuality we can see that the physical act of sex is a primal and animalistic, which opens us up to the risk of giving into these savage passion, just as animals. I’ve not explained this well, but have a look here for a better explanation. This interpretation does stray from my idea of Venus being protective and sees it as an alternate to God in that it supports our more sensual side.
However, never fear as Venus will protect us from these urges!
The concept of this physical dew cast down protectives by the Evening Star is revisited in the final two lines. Now it is referred to as ‘sacred dew’ and thus innately connected with a divine role, specifically to ‘protect them with thin influence’ from the temptations and dangers of the dark. The ‘them’ in this case have earlier been referred to as ‘our flock’, terminology that is intimately connected with Christian faith and the belief that God is our shepherd and faith protects us from evil.
This is a very unusual sonnet as it does not follow the rhyming conventions of either Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnets and instead has no rhyme scheme at all.
The fact it is a sonnet demonstrates the love or appreciation that Blake directs towards faith, but the lack of rhyme could be seen in two ways. I interpreted it as a deliberate attempt by Blake to focus us on the simple natural beauty of this dusk time scene, stripping back the poem to allow the imagery to dominate. However, you could also see this as being an artistic challenge to the rules, as Blake was a bit of an individual.
Even without a rhyme scheme as such, we do see a number of internal rhymes within lines (bright – light; smile – whie; sky – thy), which I see as Blake indicating that even though this is a rustic, simple pastoral image, its sheer beauty inspires rhyme and order.
You should also make some mention of the consistent use of consonance alliteration throughout the poem. Throughout line 6-10 notice how much ‘s’ sounds we are given. The effect is much like the shushing of the wind being described as the poem soothes us towards silence and rest.
Throughout we have an air of worship and awe towards this celestial figure. At times Blake runs away with his enthusiasm for the beauty of the imagery, or of the act of physical love, but at the end of the poem he is very much back to recognising the vulnerability of man and thus is supplicant towards the heavens and their protective powers.