Memory, hither come,
And tune your merry notes;
And, while upon the wind
Your music floats,
I’ll pore upon the stream
Where sighing lovers dream,
And fish for fancies as they pass
Within the watery glass.
I’ll drink of the clear stream,
And hear the linnet’s song;
And there I’ll lie and dream
The day along:
And, when night comes, I’ll go
To places fit for woe,
Walking along the darkened valley
With silent Melancholy.
—William Blake (1757–1827)
In Greek mythology, Memory is the mother of the muses. There would be no literature, science, or art without her. Taking this further, we can say there would be no selfhood, or, indeed, civilization without her magical and mysterious power to enchant.
In this poem, Blake calls upon memory to inspire him. This moment is repeated whenever a poet puts pen to paper and writes with an awareness of what the great canonical presences of the past have said, whether Homer, Virgil, or Shakespeare.
Memory’s “merry notes” sound like celestial music “upon the wind,” and through each line, Blake makes us hear its strange ancestral cadence too. Each time we read a poem, we connect with the ghosts of all the generations who have formed the language we speak. Through poetry’s rhythms and rhymes, we catch the promise that, like music, the universe is full of echoes. Each part somehow reflects the whole.
Blake promises that he will “pore upon the stream,” fishing for “fancies” in the “glass,” as if gazing deep within a crystal ball, where images gather and disperse. The vision of the stream applies both to music and the cool, still, rippling of water. In the flow and flux of our consciousness, fragments of the past and the speculative future mingle with our reason, emotion, and creativity—ever moving, ever miraculous.
I’m reminded of a wonderful passage from “Out of the Silent Planet” by C.S. Lewis, in which the alien Hyoi reminds the human Ransom of the essential connection between memory, meaning, and time: “A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking … as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing … When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it. But still we know very little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then—that is the real meaning. The other is only the beginning of it. You say you have poets in your world. Do they not teach you this?”
This meeting applies to our first encounter with a poem. We read it through, a few things catch our eye, and we put it down. It may not touch us at all. We may not even remember any of it. Yet at each occasion we go back to it, and hear its words on our lips, the more we feel and find—until it becomes a part of us.
Blake will “drink of the clear stream,” evoking the idea from Greek mythology that the spirit after death is confronted by two rivers, Mnemosyne, granting memory, and Lethe, granting forgetfulness. Which has Blake chosen? The “linnet’s song” guides Blake to the same dream that the lovers know. Is the day lost in dream—or discovered? Is the external world around us real, or more of an illusion than our inner life?
No dream delays the ticking of the clock, so day gives way to night. Yet Blake accepts this duality—this descent into darkness. He will walk through the shadow of the “valley” of death. Here “melancholy” is not depression as we conceive it, but rather a somber state of solitude and reflection. It signals distance and detachment from the hustle and bustle of daily life—an opening rather than closing of the mind. In silence and stillness, the spirit of poetry remains immortal.
William Blake (1757–1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker.
Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.
this interpretation of the poem was taken from The Epoch Times.