‘To See the World in a Grain of Sand’: Meaning and Origin

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘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.’ Who wrote these words, and what do they mean?

The answer to the first of these questions is William Blake: poet, engraver, artist, and visionary. The answer to the second question is a little more complicated.

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. Blake was a Romantic poet before Romanticism had really arrived properly in Britain, and he was publishing some of his best-known poetry almost a decade before William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge heralded the arrival of Romanticism on British shores with their 1798 collection, Lyrical Ballads.

Like many Romantics, Blake reacts against the Enlightenment – or Age of Reason – in some respects, while in others his work can be regarded as a continuation of Enlightenment ideas.

Unlike many of his other celebrated poems, William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ languished unpublished in notebooks for decades after his death, and was only first published in 1863.

So although the quotation about ‘see[ing] the world in a grain of sand’ is now well-known – indeed, almost inextricably linked to Blake’s work, we might say – it only saw the light of day long after his other major works, such as ‘London’, ‘The Tyger’, and Milton A Poem (which contains the lyrics to what became the hymn ‘Jerusalem’), were first published.

But 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. Unlike the poem itself, which is written in rhyming couplets, the epigraph is a quatrain composed of alternate rhyme (that is, abab):

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.

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.

Written in around 1803, ‘Auguries of Innocence’ offers various images of innocence, juxtaposing them with images of corruption, decay, or evil. The first four lines might be regarded as a sort of ‘introduction’ to the poem that follows: they have become among Blake’s most oft-quoted lines, and argue for seeing the grand in the very small, and pondering those metaphysical concepts beyond the comprehension of man by observing them at a local level.

But these opening lines do more than frame the poem in general terms: they also direct us as to how to read the sequence of images that follows, instructing us to pay attention to, and to analyse, the latent connections between things.

William Blake (1757-1827) is one of the key English poets of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He is sometimes grouped with the Romantics, such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, although much of his work stands apart from them and he worked separately from the Lake Poets.

Blake’s key themes are religion (verses from his poem Milton furnished the lyrics for the patriotic English hymn ‘Jerusalem’), poverty and the poor, and the plight of the most downtrodden or oppressed within society.

So, in conclusion, ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand’ 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.

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