The Fly by William Blake v. The Sea View by Charlotte Smith
Two Poets, WIlliam Blake and Charlotte Smith: On Death
This article serves to compare "The Sea View" by Charlotte Smith and "The Fly" by William Blake. The poems are listed below:
William Blake : The Fly
Little fly, Thy summer’s play My thoughtless hand Has brushed away. Am not I A fly like thee? Or art not thou A man like me? For I dance And drink and sing, Till some blind hand Shall brush my wing. If thought is life And strength and breath, And the want Of thought is death, Then am I A happy fly, If I live, Or if I die.
The Sea View
The upland shepherd, as reclined he liesOn the soft turf that clothes the mountain brow,Marks the bright sea-line mingling with the skies;Or from his course celestial sinking lowThe summer sun in purple radiance glowBlaze on the western waters; the wide sceneMagnificent and tranquil seems to spreadEven over the rustic's breast a joy serene,When, like dark plague-spots by the demons shed,Charged deep with death, upon the waves far seenMove the war-freighted ships; and fierce and redFlash their destructive fires--The mangled deadAnd dying victims then pollute the flood.Ah! thus man spoils glorious works with blood!
Two Poets: On Death
From Woody Allen to Leo Tolstoy, death has preoccupied the greater human minds. It is an obsession. Perhaps it is the unknown that we fear in death and darkness; perhaps it is the peace we long for. Whatever the case, we know that death has seeped as a subject in to art of all manner, not least of which, literature and poetry. To focus such a multi-faceted subject as death while maintaining its’ subjectivity, readers can look to a sonnet by Charlotte Smith and a five stanza, twenty line poem by William Blake, to illuminate death’s possible interpretations.
It is easy to connect death and fear, only the truly satisfied and dissatisfied meet death without fear, the great middle would have goals unfulfilled. In this context death can be viewed as a gruesome and destructive thing. Charlotte Smith’s sonnet “The Sea View” comments on this side of death. By creating a tranquil and beautiful scene of a sunset in the first octet, then quite literally ripping this joy away from the reader with the following sextet, composed of dark and frightening imagery, Smith describes and characterizes death; its’ effects as its’ role as a monster and destroyer.
To Blake and his poem “The Fly”, death is the subject of contemplation and questioning, the lofty question of whether or not death is significant. While Smith frightens us with death’s raw destructive power and importance, Blake removes us and brings death to a much smaller size, about the size of a house fly.
In the first stanza, a fly is killed by Blake’s “thoughtless hand” and he is brought to wonder about the significance of the act. In the second and third Blake compares himself to the fly based on their shared mortality, to kill him, the speaker muses, would be just as easy and could ultimately be just as careless as the accidental killing of a fly. Finally, in the last two stanzas, Blake asks, if death is so meaningless and the world so indifferent, is it better to worry yourself over creativity and knowledge, or to buzz along in life, avoiding conflict and strife whenever possible.
The meaning in Smith’s poem is discerned from her use of imagery and the effect it has on the reader’s senses. The reader is, at first, treated to a beautiful sunset as viewed by an “upland shepherd” as he watches the sun set into the “western waters”. The imagery is mainly visual, commenting on the “purple radiance” of the scene and “bright sea-line”, and only mentioning the feel of the “soft turf”, though that may be interpreted as visual as well. The first octet creates a feeling of serenity, culminating in the last two lines , “Magnificent and tranquil seems to spread/Even over the rustic's breast a joy serene.” In any way, the imagery creates a feeling that goes far beyond the eyes, the pleasing words and the images create a feeling of safety and calm, so tranquil and beautiful we readers forget what follows a sunset, the darkness of night. The following sextet is especially disturbing in contrast.
As Smith speaks of “dark plague-spots”, “destructive fires”, and “The mangled dead”, she is describing a wave eroding a seaside graveyard, and the subsequent pouring out of dead bodies. The deeply disturbing images of “dying victims... pollut[ing] the flood.” completely destroy the joy the reader felt four lines before. Were we to interpret the beautiful sunset as life, and the death charged waves as the end of life, a comment on the terrible, ripping act of death and its destruction of the most beautiful thing emerges. Smith laments death in the final lines of the sonnet as “man spoils glorious works with blood! ”. The theft of the most valuable, beautiful object, life is committed by the gruesome imperfections of humanity in contrast to eternal nature.
As Smith appears fully in life, Blake seems somewhat removed and accordingly, the imagery is vague, the reader sees a fly, buzzing aimlessly, and a speaker sitting, perhaps at a desk or under a tree, attempting to contemplate life and death objectively. “Till some blind hand/ shall brush my wing.” Blake writes, the lines are perhaps the most exemplary of his ideas on mortality. Blake recognizes the frailty of life, knowing his life, like the fly’s, may be ended blindly, without any purpose, and easily, as of a brush of the hand. Setting a tone for a less dark, more bleak interpretation of death Blake describes the fly’s life as naught but a “summer’s play”, then goes on, in the next stanza, to equate the speaker’s life and the fly’s by asking wether he is a fly or the fly is a man, he sees little difference. Blake goes on to characterize life in all the ways we the reader do, as “thought...and strength and breath”, and death as simply the absence of thought. The imagery is vague, the reader sees the fly, buzzing and ultimately dying aimlessly, and the speaker, perhaps at a desk or under a tree.
“The Sea View” uses the sonnet form for its tradition of division and a generally pleasing nature, having originated from love poems. By beginning a sonnet in iambic pentameter, especially one with a description of a sunset, the speaker lulls the reader into a false sense of security brought on by familiarity with an assumed pattern. In the standard octet-sextet division, Smith highlights the contrast between the two to the extreme. Everything about the first octet makes a reader feel safe, everything about the following sextet shakes that. The rhyme scheme, ABABBCDCDCDDEE, lulls back and forth then repeats, as waves move slowly and then beat on the shore.
“The Fly”, on the other hand, creates a simple rhyme scheme, rhyming the second and fourth line of each stanza. The scheme serves to slow the reader down and remove them from a secular world. As a psalm, the poem must be read carefully and therefore slowly to do justice to the intended meter. The use of iambic dimeter shortens the lines and makes each one more poignant. The writing style suggests almost existential thought, and the sing song flow, lightens a dark subject to make it grey.
Comparing the persona of the two poets is to compare one who feels death, Smith, and one who merely watches from afar, Blake. In Smith there is a poet who is deeply appreciative of the beauty of nature and a sunset and associates such things with life and is therefore especially hateful towards death in it’s description. To Smith, death is war and a plague, it spoils beauty and rips souls away as the bodies are ripped out of the graveyard. To Blake, death is a common and not especially significant occurrence. The speaker of “The Fly” is perhaps nearing the middle or end of their life, perhaps they have seen friends and family die without sense or purpose. In any capacity we see a poet using a sonnet to display the raw corrosive power of death, as strong, terrible, and constant as the waves of the ocean; and another using a short sing song five stanzas to dispute the supposed significance of human death, or death itself.
Were the poets to meet, perhaps the speaker of “The Sea View” could convince “The Fly’s” speaker to be a bit more present in his own life, to be somewhat more invested in what
occurs in this world, to, as they say, get his head out of clouds. Perhaps Blake would persuade Smith to be less emotional, less secular.