Wednesday, 7 May 2014


William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” begins with the following quatrain, perhaps as perfect four lines as ever he wrote
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
The poem appears in the so-called “Pickering Manuscript”, sometimes called the “Ballads Manuscript”, a collection made for some friend or patron : ten poems written out in a clear hand on eleven leaves. Owned by Basil Montagu Pickering in 1866, the manuscript is now in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

The direct and simple-seeming couplets of “Auguries of Innocence” have a powerful directness and an imaginative penetration which leave nothing to be desired. The effect, as Keynes recognised, “is that of a torrent of aphoristic principles conveyed with breathless urgency into the reader’s mind”. All ten poems of the Pickering Manuscript (which also include “The Mental Traveller”) appear to belong to the years of Blake’s residence in Felpham; Sampson argues for a date of about 1803 and observes that they “have a certain unity of their own”—but this might be due to selection rather than to composition within a brief period. They are all ballads—or in ballad measure— ranging from the lyrical to the gnomic. Bentley gives 1800-4 as probable dates of original composition. The earliest date they could have been written out is June or July 1802, since the manuscript is on leaves from Hayley’s Designs to a Series of Ballads of that date. Bentley thinks Blake would not have used this paper until after 1805, probably after 1807.  The poems of the “Pickering Manuscript” thus immediately precede or even overlap with the creation of Blake’s great final epics Milton and Jerusalem.

Gordon Sumner CBE (“Sting”) is a former English teacher. He has recorded Blake’s “Cradle Song” in an adaptation of the Vaughan Williams setting. It is not a recording I would recommend. The Oprah Winfrey Show for 28 October 2003 found Sting publicising a new album by performing his “Send Your Love”. It opens with some curiously familiar lines
Finding the world in the smallness of a grain of sand
And holding infinities in the palm of your hand
And Heaven’s realms in the seedlings of this tiny flower
And eternities in the space of a single hour.
Apparently unable or unwilling further to pursue the clumsy paraphrase, Sting continues
Send your love into the future
Send your love into the distant dawn
Inside your mind is a relay station
A mission probe into the unknowing
We send a seed to a distant future
Then we can watch the galaxies growing
That’s enough I think.

OPRAH: Well, how do you write your music? For example, we’re going to hear “Send Your Love”. I love the lyrics to that song so much. You say “Finding the world in the smallness of a grain of sand and holding infinities in the palm of your hand, and heaven’s realms in the seedlings of this tiny flower and eternities in the space of a single hour. Send your love into the future, send your love into the distant dawn. This ain’t no”—this is my favourite stanza—”This ain’t no time for doubting your power. This ain’t no time for hiding your care. You’re climbing down from an ivory tower. You’ve got a stake in the world, we ought to share. This is the time for the worlds colliding. This is the time of kingdoms falling. This is the time of worlds dividing. Time to heed your call.”

(Oprah Winfrey is an intelligent woman. Is this gush seriously intended? Or is she subtly inviting Sting to come clean over the plagiarism? It doesn’t work so the gush continues.)

OPRAH: Now what were you thinking when you wrote that? You just thought you’d just sit up—it’s like an anthem for—to me it’s like an anthem for personal movement in the world.

STING: I think the world is in crisis. I don’t think we should pretend that it isn’t, but I think it’s an opportunity for us all to evolve, for us all to take responsibility for the world we have and actually play a part in making it better. I think the world is made better incrementally by small gestures, you know, an affectionate gesture, a kiss, a hug or act of kindness, an act of generosity. Equally, you can make the world a negative place that it can be by small acts of meanness and greed and unkindness. So I believe we are responsible for making the world.

OPRAH: Yeah, and you also talk in the song about what is your real religion and Marianne Pearl, whose husband, Daniel Pearl, was murdered by the terrorists, asks in her book, on the morning that her husband died, she asked him, “What is your true religion? I don’t mean the religion of your parents, but what is your true religion?” And he answered, “Truth and integrity.” So what is your true religion?

STING: Well, religion is an interesting word. It comes from Latin. It means to reconnect, reconnect with the world of the spirit, and there are many ways to reconnect with the world of the spirit, not just by going to church or praying. You can reconnect through music. You can reconnect through the woman you love or the man you love, and these are my roots to the sacred. And so this record is really about approaching the sacred through very normal things.

OPRAH: You say sex and music, the only religion. Dancing and ...

STING: Everything.

OPRAH: Thank you so much, Sting.

STING: Thank you, Oprah.

(Oprah does her homework before interviewing her guests. A simple search on the net would have found Blake’s poem. Was she was setting Sting up? Some indeed of Oprah’s million viewers spotted the borrowing from Blake. One contacted the Blake Society to protest.)

If you want to hear a version that respects Blake’s words, The Fugs provide a touching performance of “Auguries of Innocence” on their album The Real Woodstock Festival (Big Beat Records, 1995).

Further reading

G. E. Bentley, Jr.—Blake Books.—Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1977.

Geoffrey Keynes.—“Comment”.—William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence together with the rearrangement by Dr John Sampson and a Comment by Geoffrey Keynes, Kt.—Burford : Cygnet Press, 1975.

[Gordon Sumner].—Lyrics by Sting.—London ; New York : Simon & Schuster, 2007.

John Sampson, ed.—The Poetical Works of William Blake. Including the unpublished French Revolution, together with the Minor Prophetic Books, and selections from The Four Zoas, Milton & Jerusalem.—London ; New York : Oxford University Press, H. Milford, 1913.


The William Blake Archive now includes the Pickering Manuscript in facsimile and transcript  

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad so many other (English majors) noticed this besides me. It's lying and stealing to further increase his carbon footprint (or whatever).
    I'm happy - now, after so much time has passed - to extrapolate that Oprah has also been made aware of this - surely after the "Three Teacups" shell game