Auguries of Innocence: the Connected and Consequential Cosmos

Reconciliation ecologist Pete Yeo took inspiration from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence in a new-found understanding of the natural world through chaos theory and fractals. Here, he shares his appreciation of Blake’s words and their popularity for how they speak directly to the heart of the matter.


To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Why is it that these opening lines of William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence have become so well-known? Might the answer draw out a dichotomy in our modern relationship with the cosmos, yet still augur well for our necessary reconciliation with the web of life?

I cannot now recall when I first encountered these lines yet I suspect it was in the early nineties, around the time of my introduction to chaos theory and fractal geometry following a travelling scholarship to the USA. Whilst I may have begun with an intellectual interpretation of his poem’s beautiful opening invitation, his words would have resonated with my felt experience of the connective patterning of the world around me. I’m sure I’m not alone in having seen the macrocosm in the microcosm, and vice versa. Blake’s words are popular, I suggest, because they speak directly to the heart of matter.

auguries of innocence - repeating patterns in nature
A familiar fractal metapattern: what social scientist Gregory Bateson called ‘the Pattern that Connects’.
Photograph: Pete Yeo

Recalling that trip to the USA, and a mind alive with new-found understanding and meaning, I began to see further into the depth of the world as I toured nature preserves around the southeastern states. And not just with my mind; an artist’s feeling sense was being nurtured too. Atop a landmark granite outcrop in Georgia, I took a photograph that was soon to have great significance for me. The subject was simple enough, a crescent of lichen and moss initiating the process of plant colonisation around a small solution pool of less than half a metre square. With time, as weathering and root action proceeded, they would be joined by grasses, perhaps a shrub or two, even a pine sapling. In awe of the power of the vegetal realm, there I left it.

Vegetal beginnings; the solution pool atop Heggie’s Rock, Georgia.
Photograph: Pete Yeo

A golden thread 

On my return to the UK I began to satisfy my craving for more knowledge of chaos theory, the self-similar scaling of fractals and, inevitably, quantum physics. Within a better grasp of Life, how might I use this information in my work with plants? It wasn’t long before serendipity offered its help. The latest issue of a magazine subscription included a supplement on Australia, within which was a photograph that rather took my breath away. It was an aerial shot of a beautiful bay fringed by mangrove forest, this forest exhibiting the same light/dark green banding as the lichen (light) and moss (dark) in Georgia. The similarities can, of course, be explained rationally, and yet, for me, it was a heart-felt sign; here was a golden thread to follow.

The serendipitous, scaled-up vegetal crescent on the coast of Australia.
Photograph: Unknown

Plants have long ignited my imagination, and they had taken me to the States. These days I have a growing appreciation of the extent to which they have supported me throughout my life as I have searched for meaning in various ways and places. They have been both generic and specific totems. It is with deep gratitude that I now work with them as nature connection portals for others, supported by the latest discoveries in plant behaviour, intelligence and connectivity. My interest in physics has continued alongside, especially in recent years with the fascinating insights arising from the field of unified physics (readily accessible via the Resonance Science Foundation, for instance).

Auguries of innocence: a unified field

This new physics is radically evolving our modern worldview, evidencing the ancient spiritual mantra, known to Blake we might imagine, that “All is One”. The mind is now explaining what hearts have long felt; rather than having separatist dominion over a ‘clockwork universe’ of parts, we are an expression of a living cosmos that is far more than the sum of its interdependent parts. The ‘Ocean of Being’ is now described as an immersive, unified field of energy from which all physical matter is spun into patterned existence across an infinite scale. As plant cognition scientist Monica Gagliano puts it, “we are not in nature, we don’t go to nature. We are nature. We literally spring out of the planet.”

auguries of innocence - the cosmic matrix
The cosmic matrix, the “flower of life”, each circle actually an overlapping sphere in 3D.
Photograph: Pete Yeo

This unified field expresses the sacred geometry known to the ancients, its foundational structure represented by the ‘flower of life’ symbol, and its fundamental energy flow pattern by the yin yang symbol. Inherent to the latter is a reflexive learning and evolving mechanism known as ‘feedback/feedforward’. This is reflected, for example, in the Earth’s electromagnetic field or a halved apple. Simply use opposing fingers to trace a pattern exiting one pole, passing along either side, re-entering at the other pole, and reuniting via the core. In other words, what is given out to the world is received back, things work or they don’t. Just as Blake’s poem goes on to suggest, our actions have consequences for us in time, and we can learn and evolve accordingly.

William Blake’s Newton (1795): colour print with pen & ink and watercolour.
Image: The William Blake Archive

And so, we come full circle. Whilst Blake took issue with the emergence of Science, most notably with his painting Newton, this adventure in reductive reasoning – the so-called Enlightenment that became what countercultural intellectual Charles Eisenstein calls the ‘Story of Separation’ – was perhaps a necessary detour for humanity. Putting a positive spin on the matter, the inherent and multivalent learning therein has likely moved us forward as a species, delivered us to a more informed space. I would like to think that my personal journey into disconnection has had a similar outcome in microcosm. It could be said that we have come full spiral; indeed, in 3D the yin yang’s energy flow pattern is in fact spiralling (for a visualisation, see the link in the notes below).

Better connection

As heart and mind, feeling and intellect reconvene in our crisis-ridden time there would appear to be cause for hope. Yet, however resonant our intellect, that is no guarantee of better decision-making. Consider the decades of appeals to society with respect to climate change. The world around us and its events need to be acutely felt for effective action to be taken – what has been called compassionate empathy – just as you might act on chronic pain within your own body. The revolution is love, as they say, and we care for what we love.

Thankfully our heart connection is always there for us; to modify an old adage, you can try to take the child from the cosmos yet you can’t take the cosmos from the child. The new physics is telling us that at the centre of every 3D yin yang, at whatever scale we choose – from proton to galaxy, we will find singularity and the intimate portal of connection with the unified field of the cosmos, or ‘Source’. Far more than a pump, the human heart, generator of the body’s largest electromagnetic field, is in every sense our centre of felt connection.

Auguries of innocence - the seed of truth
Whatever the scale, there is a seed of truth at the heart of matter.
Photograph: Pete Yeo

It is no coincidence that just when we most need to reconcile ourselves with our planetary home there is now a popular surge in nature connection activities, like forest school (for all ages) or foraging, alongside ecological campaigning. A beneficial aspect of today’s media is that they are helping us feel the collective trauma. The restorative power of our heartfelt connection, evidenced also in the rise of forest bathing and nature prescriptions, can even ‘resuscitate’ those numb to the world around them, to quote nature connection practitioner Danny Shmulevitch. It could be as simple as bathing in a starry night. The joy of the world is as much ours as its pain; as the yin yang symbol shows, they are intimately entwined.

Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro the World we safely go
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine

These later lines from Auguries of Innocence further evidence Blake’s channelling of some mighty wisdom, describing the seed of truth at the heart of matter – our consequential connection to cosmos. What, I wonder, might have happened if Isaac Newton had interpreted his falling apple another way, coming to know that he had held infinity in the palm of his hand and eternity in that hour? Blake may smile wryly at the question, yet in fairness to Newton, I’ll close with a line from another popular text, the Desiderata by Max Ehrmann.

No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.


Notes

In his previous Finding Blake post, An Evergreen and Pleasant Land?, Pete finds inspiration in William Blake’s poem that later became the hymn Jerusalem when contemplating the impacts of our changing climate on Britain’s evergreen plantlife.

For more from Pete, see his website, Future Flora, and his similarly-named Facebook page for weekly musings. Lately, he’s felt a call to write more expansively on the need for a more holistic and reverential relationship with the plant realm (and hence all Life). At times the muse has felt rather Blakean.

You can read Auguries of Innocence and more of Blake’s poems at Poetry Foundation. In a September 2020 article on Blake’s four-fold imagination, Mark Vernon discusses Blake’s view of the limitations of the ‘singular’ vision of science as exemplified by Isaac Newton and illustrated in Blake’s painting.

Wikipedia, as ever, has useful introductions to chaos theory and fractal geometry, and there is more at the Resonance Science Foundation, a global research and education non-profit organization working for the unification of physics and science as a whole.

You can hear plant cognition scientist Monica Gagliano, as quoted by Pete, discuss plant sentience in this 2020 podcast from Camden Art Audio. For more on the ‘flower of life’ and yin yang symbols Pete discusses — and illustrates in his image, the cosmic matrix — again Wikipedia provides good overviews. Pete has provided this link to a more 3D illustration of the spiralling nature of the yin yang energy flow, as mentioned in his text.

Pete mentions the thinking of Charles Eisenstein on the ‘Story of Separation’, and you can watch a short video of Charles talking about the root of this separation on his website.

For more on the restorative power of connection with nature, see these pieces on forest bathing and nature prescriptions and the work of Danny Shmulevitch.

Finally, the full text of Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata is available here.

With Mr Blake at the Tate

Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White shares his recent experiences and reflections on the William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain, London, which opened last September and ends on 2nd February.


“a new kind of man, wholly original” 
-- from an 1863 biography, drawing on reflections of Blake’s followers

Just back from an afternoon with Blake at the Tate, I’d been processing on the train home …

Overall, it was an intense encounter: really busy for a Sunday afternoon, which results in conveyor-belt art appreciation, with shuffles and shoves to see and stand for a few moments in front of the image or text that grabs the eye; with my guerilla-style meanderings round the rooms, being led to the Blakes I know well or have wanted to meet for a while, or a colour or a line or an outstretched arm within an image calling for attention.

Here’s a tiny clip of me immediately post-show, trying to gather some thoughts:

On seeing Blake at Tate 11/1/2020 from James Murray-White.

from a Blake exhibition
‘Lucifer and the Pope in hell’ William Blake: 1794-6

Recreating a Blake exhibition

There are five rooms in all, each literally stuffed with images of all types. Which is pretty overwhelming, though quite glorious. This show focuses on smaller pieces, with the timeline in order of their production, whereas the last Blake exhibition I saw — at Petworth in Sussex — was smaller and seemed to focus on bigger and brighter images, with space around them. One of my favourites, ‘The Sea of Time and Space’ (1821) has come up from Petworth and was originally commissioned by Countess Egremont when he was down the road in Felpham. And it’s curious that the descriptor on the wall says that the subject of the painting is ‘a mystery’ whereas, post-Petworth, many of the interviewees for our Finding Blake film were keen to discuss it, dissect it and come up with multiple meanings……

‘The Sea of Time & Space’ William Blake, 1821

from a Blake exhibition

The highlight of the show was the recreation of his 1809 independent exhibition in his then house in Broad Street, Soho — with some clever lighting really bringing four of the pictures to life: ‘Satan calling up his legions’ (1795 – 1800); ‘The spiritual form of Nelson guiding Leviathan’ (1805 – 09); ‘The spiritual form of Pitt guiding Behemoth’ (1805); ‘The bard, from Gray’ (1809). This effect really opened up these images, naturally displayed in the regulation, lower lighting levels.

Connecting the legacy?

In the next room was a projection showing these same paintings at a grand scale, which enables that intimate engagement with pigment and brushstroke I really long for in my standing with a Blake. However, what the exhibition does really lack is any more audio-visual material; why no film? Why no ‘experts’ talking about what Blake means to them? And why no material or an entire room connecting the continuing legacy through to our age and beyond?

There is the Tate’s room upstairs, with 20th-century artists’ responses to Blake, so why couldn’t the show be configured to lead into that, at least? Something like: ‘the artist as of his time and beyond’. I like the short and succinct titles for each room: ‘Blake be an artist’, ‘Making prints, making a living’, ‘Patronage and independence’, ‘Independence and despair’, and ‘A new kind of man’. It felt like the exhibition was solely concentrating on the man: inside Blake’s mind as he worked on each commission, or responded to the voices he heard, or reflected with his brush on the swirling politics and rush into the industrial / military / capitalist system happening in the London streets around him; his deep dive into a spiritual world, with visionary realms, clear choices between ascent and descent — strong arms to pull upward, glittering spiral staircases or watery graves, Job, Joseph, a heavenly Jerusalem, inspiration from Milton … and so much more.

from a Blake exhibition
Epitome of James Hervey’s ‘Meditations among the Tombs’
William Blake: 1820-25

from a Blake exhibition

It was great to see the portrait of Blake at the start of the exhibition attributed to Catherine: this has been highlighted by the media, for the first time acknowledging her place side-by-side with him, as both his support, his muse, and oftentimes co-creating or finishing the artwork for him (certainly the etchings). Those of us who have been studying Blake a while welcome this, and hope this acknowledgement serves as a significant nudge to recognise the role of partners in artists’ lives.

I recalled the big exhibition at the Ashmolean some years ago, which really kick-started my nascent interest in Blake. That went out of its way to place him in the context in the wider world; devoting the first room to Blake as student to James Basire, and having a series of stones that Blake took rubbings from; and then the end room being a collection of Samuel Palmer’s works, showing the beautiful lineage being passed along — as well as Michael Phillip’s recreation of Blake’s printing press as well, with the man himself on hand to make replicas. So, having these three exhibitions in my mind, I thank these great repositories of art and their curators for having provided me and the public with opportunities to see great Blakes gathered together (although the Tate has been pretty difficult to engage with — ignoring emails and then being less than forthcoming about sharing material on the recent projection on St Paul’s).

So now it is incumbent upon me to go away to get editing our film and bring ‘Finding Blake’ out into the world!

I’ve not been slack. I’ve been limbering up with my software, gathering materials and footage, conversing with a master editor overseas, and reaching out in advance to plan screenings hither and thither (including an exclusive preview for all the project’s sponsors and website friends), and letting Blake and this current stage of the Anthropocene swirl within my molecules reflectively through the solstice in quiet and wilder spaces and places: walking with the fox and ascending to Jerusalem from ‘England’s Green & pleasant land’.

If you’ve been to the Tate, we’d love to hear your reflections on the Blake show. Please send us in a comment or a post. If there’s one image in particular you didn’t know before, or one you’ve been wanting to meet ‘in the flesh’, or were disappointed with, or take issue with the thrust of the show overall — do share.


Notes

Tate Britain’s William Blake exhibition ends on 2nd February, You can find out more and read the exhibition guide here.

In an earlier post, The Unfolding and Unveiling, James shares some of his other encounters with William Blake, from childhood up to the present — including the Blake exhibition at Petworth House, Blake in Sussex, which he mentioned above.

Reflections on A Poison Tree

Poet Clare Crossman was one of our first contributing authors at Finding Blake, and we welcome Clare back with her reflections on A Poison Tree, a key poem in William Blake’s work, published in Songs of Experience in 1794.


I re-read A Poison Tree again recently because I run the south Cambridgeshire Poetry society, Stanza, and was looking for poems about Truth, which is the theme of this year’s national poetry day.

Adrian Mitchell, a great lover of Blake, was a necessary poet in the mix. The lyrics of his song The Truth were just what I needed and then there was Emily Dickinson, Don Patterson, WH Auden, and all the other poets on the National Poetry Day site.

I was reminded of A Poison Tree by one of the members during our discussion. The more we looked at poems the more it seemed that there was a very thin line between truth and lies, as we felt the truth can sometimes be unbearable. A Poison Tree was discussed because it was the one poem we all knew in which the effects of not saying how you feel or addressing anger can cause self-destructive anger and, as in the poem, death — or murder as some have suggested.

Directness and honesty is a tone that can be relied on in Blake. It is interesting to note that the original title of the poem was Christian Forbearance, an irony of course from Blake: a criticism of the buttoned-up and the easy Good. He disliked hypocrisy. 

The poison of soft, deceitful wiles

Blake stares into the face of what anger does to us by setting his thoughts in a simple balance.

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not my wrath did grow.

There is difficulty in speaking to the enemy and so, full of resentment, he nurtures the Poison Tree inside him (I imagine capillaries through which a cancer is spreading):

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles.

Blake notes that how he responds to the enemy is to pretend to be pleasant: ‘soft deceitful wiles’. He smiles through his anger. As Shakespeare wrote, “A man may smile and smile and be a villain”.

Hand-painted copy B of William Blake’s “A Poison Tree”, 1794 currently held at the British Museum.

In the third verse there is an elegant reversal, the apple in the Garden of Eden becomes a glittering object as if it has been touched by King Midas, not a beautiful piece of fruit:

And it grew both day and night
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine
And he knew that it was mine.

This apple does not belong in the Garden of Love, it has been created by things left unspoken and has become a symbol of deception and anger (‘My precious, my precious’). This apple does not cause the fall of man by being picked and eaten; it causes death destruction and an eerie acknowledgement of the way evil can fascinate and entangle.

Then there is the last verse.

And into my garden stole,
When the night had veiled the pole:
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

I don’t agree with literal interpretations of the last verse. I think it is too deliberately ambiguous, and my feeling is that it means more that the evil has somehow spread and been recognised by both the foe and the speaker in the poem. In the dark ‘night had veiled the pole’ both people in the poem have become part of the destructive anger.

A destructive anger

I wonder what started this poem off? We have all had relationships that end in anger and silence, with both people involved feeling damaged. The singer-songwriter Beth Orton has written a wonderful melancholic setting for this poem which can be found on one of her finest albums, Sugaring Season.

But the poem I think is about real hatred and real dislike, where those involve dissemble and pretend to be opposite to who they are while harbouring a deep, destructive anger… The scenes in the last series of Peaky Blinders, showing Oswald Mosley at full throttle come to mind. In that instance, hatred of the other is masquerading as good sense and decency — which is in his case fascism.

Blake seems to be saying that however difficult we find it we must stand up to our real foes, and express our angers because if we don’t the consequences are terrible. Courage and forgiveness are also required, which can be found for a friend — but someone you really don’t like? That’s another matter. It is easier with a friend but maybe not impossible with a foe.

Good advice from 225 years ago. Oh, William Blake you were wise. You looked directly at hatred and what it does.

As Adrian Mitchell  (a great admirer of Blake) wrote 150 years later:

The truth is the truth it’s a strange kind of animal, so I stay awake listening for the truth.


Notes

Adrian Mitchell’s The Truth is published in Come on Everybody – Poems 1953-2008, published by Bloodaxe Books. And you can read The Guardian’s obituary for Mitchell, “in whom the legacies of Blake and Brecht coalesce with the zip of Little Richard and the swing of Chuck Berry…” who wrote Tyger for the National Theatre in 1971, “a time-travelling musical about a visionary 18th-century poet in today’s fallen times, with music by long-term collaborator Mike Westbrook.”

You can hear Beth Orton’s song, Poison Tree, on YouTube – and of course Finding Blake guest contributors Astralingua and Mick and Kate Stannard have also shared their own adaptations of Blake’s poem with us.

Clare has previously shared her reflections on Blake’s poem London with us here Finding Blake. And you can find her own poems at Clare Crossman – Poet & Writer as well as on ClimateCultures and the website for her project with James Murray-White: Waterlight — A Journey Along the River Mel.

You can explore more of Blake’s poems from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, with summaries, analysis and images of the original illustrations, at The Tate’s pages.