The poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827) has given us a number of phrases which have passed into common use: ‘green and pleasant land’ and ‘chariot of fire’ are just two of many examples. But what are the best Blake quotations, and what do they mean? In which of his works do they appear?
Below, we select and introduce some of William Blake’s greatest lines. We have left out any quotations which have been attributed to Blake but which cannot be definitively traced to any of his writings – no matter how pithy or memorable they are.
‘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.’
This is one of Blake’s most famous and oft-repeated quotations: a quatrain which opens Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’, written in 1803 though only published in 1863, decades after Blake’s death.
In this quotation, Blake argues that we should see the grand in the very small, and we should ponder those metaphysical concepts beyond the comprehension of man by observing them at a local level. We cannot grasp such vast things as ‘the world’, ‘heaven’, ‘infinity’, or ‘eternity’ – these things are too big for our imperfectly evolved brains to conceptualise – unless we view them through the lens, if you will, of the very small. We can thus understand the workings of the world by observing a grain of sand. We can see the beauty of heaven in a flower.
In a sense, ‘Auguries of Innocence’ provides a backdrop for the poet’s most famous poetry, and is a kind of manifesto for his distinctive way of viewing the world. And this includes the idea of seeing the world in a grain of sand, and holding infinity in the palm of one’s hand. Those words begin ‘Auguries of Innocence’, providing a kind of epigraph to the poem that follows.
‘Tyger! Tyger! burning bright’.
These opening lines of the poem technically known as ‘The Tyger’ are among the most famous opening lines, not just in Blake’s work, but in all of English poetry. The insistent trochaic metre of the line, the repetition, and the strong plosive alliteration of ‘burning bright’ all help to make the line one of the most arresting and eye-catching (ear-catching?) in English literature.
‘What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?’
After the opening lines, these are the best-known quotations from ‘The Tyger’, marking out the poem as both a nature poem (or an animal poem) and a religious poem, in which Blake expresses his awe at the Creator who made the fearsome (‘fearful’ means ‘inspiring fear’ here) and mighty predator, the tiger.
‘I wander thro’ each charter’d street’.
Another famous opening line: this time, from Blake’s 1794 poem ‘London’, his searing indictment of the squalor and suffering in the capital. The poem goes on to mention chimney-sweepers, unlucky soldiers, and youthful ‘harlots’, all of whom are among the many downtrodden sufferers of the industrial city.
‘If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.’
This is a line from Blake’s long work of the early 1790s, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) liked the phrase ‘the doors of perception’ so much that he used it for the title of his book documenting his experiences taking mescaline; a 1960s rock group liked the title so much that they named themselves The Doors after the book.
‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.’
Many of Blake’s pithiest quotations are found in his ‘Proverbs of Hell’: a series of statements, sometimes paradoxical, but always surprising and memorable, which form part of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In order to attain true enlightenment, we must over-indulge until we come out the other end, a wiser and more knowledgeable person.
‘In England’s green and pleasant land.’
This quotation is from Blake’s poem Milton, though the stanzas which feature this line are often known by the title ‘Jerusalem’, thanks to the hymn which Hubert Parry composed, to Blake’s words, in 1916.
The poem, and the hymn, have since become a kind of patriotic paean to England, but Blake is actually being deeply critical of his homeland, with its ‘dark Satanic mills’ (a phrase whose precise meaning is explained here).
‘Bring me my chariot of fire.’
Another famous line from ‘Jerusalem’, as it’s commonly known, from the stanza in which Blake girds his loins ready for the ‘mental fight’ of establishing Jerusalem within England. The line inspired the title of the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, about British runners at the 1924 Olympic Games.
‘I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.’
Another of Blake’s famous poems, ‘A Poison Tree’, opens with this couplet. The poem was recited by Tommy Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy, in the opening episode of the final series of Peaky Blinders. The lines are about how anger eats away at us if we repress it and hope it’ll go away.
‘A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.’
This couplet constitutes the other most famous quotation from ‘Auguries of Innocence’. Here we see ‘innocence’ being destroyed by man: putting birds in cages or birdhouses restricts their freedom, and is abhorrent to Blake. Unnecessary and pointless acts of suffering and destruction, especially of animals, are Blake’s specific target in ‘Auguries of Innocence’.
‘A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.’
Okay, these are perhaps the other most famous lines from ‘Auguries’. The couplet strikes at the heart of an important, if paradoxical, truth: that telling the truth in order to cause harm is worse than all the lies in the world. The truth can set us free, but it can also be a powerful, and dangerous, weapon.
‘The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.’
Here, in another of his proverbs of hell, Blake reminds us that we are different, using the symbolism of two very different birds to make his point: the eagle, a bird of prey, is trained to hunt and kill; it cannot learn anything from the crow, a carrion bird or scavenger. The line is a powerful denunciation of conformity and the desire to treat everyone the same.
‘A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.’
Another proverb of hell, in which Blake reminds us – as many of his fellow Romantics would – that our perception of the world is subjective, and colours the way we engage with it.
‘Opposition is true friendship.’
This line, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, seems like a good place to conclude our pick of the best William Blake quotations. It may not be the most famous William Blake quotation, but it contains an important truth: our real friends will happily disagree with us, because they know the friendship will survive such differences of opinion. And true friends are happy to call us out.
Christopher Ricks borrowed this line for True Friendship, his literary-critical study of contemporary poets who engage (and often disagree, good-naturedly) with the work of the great modernist poets, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.