Another product of my senior year of high school; I'll be posting more contemporary material when it doesn't sting so much. In the meantime I'll be continually culling the crap; this is one of very few papers of mine from high school that were worth saving. Comments from my AP English Language teacher at the time: "An excellent idea for a comparison, Tracy — and well handled. Although, I have to say that I am not entirely comfortable w/your choice to forgo an introductory paragraph in the traditional academic sense." Oops.
William Blake's "Ah! Sun-flower" and Allen Ginsberg's "Sunflower Sutra": A Microcosm of Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Literature
Ah, Sun-flower! weary of time
Who countest the steps of the sun
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller's journey is done:
Where the Youth pined away with desire
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow
Arise from their graves and aspire
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.
"Ah! Sun-flower", like so many of William Blake's poems, prominently displays many of the characteristics that made his work so significant. First published in his 1789 collection Songs of Innocence, it incorporates elements reminiscent of the literary movements that preceded and followed him. By rejecting accepted ideals as readily as he did conventional forms, Blake created and defined a style and meaning all his own. He is generally acknowledged as an artistic force unto himself, bridging the gap between the eighteenth century's Age of Reason and the nineteenth-century Romantics' individualistic emotional revelations of the natural world. He had epiphanies all his own --- visions of God and angels so intense that they still reverberate in his writings and etchings to this day. Because of his unusual religious fervor, which could not be contained by the dogma of any church, Blake is often labeled a mystic. Close analysis reveals that there is more to his unique brand of spirituality than mysticism, just as there is more to his writing than literary iconoclasm. "Ah! Sun-flower" is an excellent example of how Blake's work transcends spiritual boundaries while keeping its literary roots in mortal earth.
In eight short lines, "Ah! Sun-flower" uses the simplest of literary devices to conjure up the aspirations of saints and sinners alike, and inspire his readers to embrace simliarly lofty ideals. Blake's poem is free of the ornate language that often obscured the meaning of eighteenth-century writing. Its unpretentious diction and clean, unforced rhymes and meter suggest a children's poem,
stylistically in keeping with the theme of innocence. But the religious overtones, so typical of Blake, transcend youthful ignorance. The poem's metaphor is skillful and apt --- as the Sun-flower faces the sun, it can also be interpreted as looking towards heaven. Indeed, what other "sweet golden clime" might the poet be referring to in the third line? A mythic place, a mystical place, the ultimate destination of "the traveller's journey" and every life. The juxtaposition of the ardent Youth --- Desire
incarnate --- and the Virgin, pure and chaste as the driven snow, serve to remind us of the universality of Blake's paradise. Further religious imagery is present as these iconic figures "arise from their graves", evoking the Christian myth's prediction for the dead on the Day of Judgement. The conventionality of this image is
immediately subverted by the fact that Desire is just as eligible for an eternal reward as is Chastity --- and, for that matter, the time-weary Sun-flower. The poem's length does not require readers to dwell on its subject; rather, its conclusion seems as natural as the gently rolling dactyls of its meter. Thus, Blake's simple and subtle
discussion of religion --- albeit of a distinctly free-thinking and forgiving sort --- lends "Ah! Sun-flower" its timelessly inspiring quality.
Nearly 200 years after Blake's revelatory rhymes, a young American poet named Allen Ginsberg experienced a few powerful inspirations of his own. He and his contemporaries, known as the Beat Generation, were deeply affected by the turbulent emotions of postwar America. Their body of work struck out against 1950's social conventions with revolutionary and often controversial lifestyles and art that paved the way for the artistic and social revolutions of the 1960's. Prominent figures of this period include Neal Cassady, best known as
the inspiration for Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road, which, along with Ginsberg's long poem "Howl", came to be recognized among the definitive artistic and philosophical statements of their time. But even before "Howl" exploded onto the American poetic scene, Ginsberg was pouring out his soul in dizzying torrents of memorable verse. One of these, "Sunflower Sutra", was inspired by a vision of William Blake himself, reading the poem "Ah! Sun-flower", which we have just discussed. Ginsberg's work evokes Blake's in its themes, but ventures into new emotional as well as spiritual territory, much as did twentieth-century art.
With Blake's quasi-American Transcendentalist "everything is holy" sentiment (which Ginsberg would later reiterate extensively in "Footnote to Howl") as a leaping-off point, "Sunflower Sutra" deepens the poetic parallels between the sunflower and the soul and explores these characters' relationships with their setting --- the world around them. The first three lines of the poem establish Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac as the narrator and his companion, and introduce the image of the locomotive, which comes to personify the artificial elements of the world. An ominous metaphorical hybrid of metallic and organic imagery is first suggested with the "gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery". We are further alerted to the dangers of the metropolitan setting when the narrator's initial response to the sunflower recalls what he terms the "poem of the riverbank". A dubious opus, this poem is condensed into one line: "Hells of the Eastern rivers, bridges clanking Joes Greasy Sandwiches, dead baby carriages, black treadless tires forgotten and unretreaded... condoms & pots, steel knives, nothing stainless, only the dank muck and the razor-sharp artifacts passing into the past—" The filth of humanity's discarded by-products are illustrated in this line and many others, beginning with the "rusty iron pole" and "oily water" of the initial setting. It recurs as the locomotive, the cause of the sunflower's grayness, the "artificial worse-than-dirt" --- indeed, it seems the very bane of all existence. The mechanical trees of the second line merely foreshadow more "blear thoughts":
death and dusty loveless eyes and ends and withered roots below, in the home-pile of sand and sawdust, rubber dollar bills, skin of machinery, the guts and innards of the weeping coughing car, the empty lonely tincans with their rusty tongues alack, what more could I name, the smoked ashes of some cock cigar, the cunts of wheelbarrows and the milky breasts of cars, wornout asses our of chairs & sphincters of dynamo --- all these
This passage --- a single line --- not only illustrates Ginsberg's unique style and typically Beat disregard for social and legal conventions such as "obscenity" but completes the nightmarish vision of a machine-world inhabited by soulless beings whose bodies are no better than refuse, and whose humanity is reduced to the crudeness of four-letter words. It is the possibility of such a world that "Sunflower Sutra" seeks to prevent by sharing these revelations and more, yet we have not yet discussed the source of these prophetic warnings --- the narrator and the Sunflower itself.
The bleak tableau of life half-blinded by the pollution of urbanity is the setting for the dramatic encounter described in "Sunflower Sutra", which elevates the meaning of William Blake's Sun-flower to still greater and holier heights. Ginsberg's Sunflower is introduced in line 4 of his poem, and the next line includes a reference to Blake
and the "visions" discussed earlier. The narrator's fascination with the sunflower is tempered only by the memories that arise from his association: the dank "poem of the riverbank". After that listing, three lines, long as only Ginsberg and Walt Whitman (with whom the former is often compared or associated) can make them, describe the
new vision, abruptly shifting tones with: "Unholy battered old thing you were my sunflower, O my soul, I loved you then!" Not only is this important statement located at the heart of the poem, it is its turning point. Whereas Blake, with the exception of a single possessive pronoun in his poem's last line, tells his readers nothing about his relationship to the sunflower, Ginsberg at this point not
only claims the sunflower as his own, but bares his soul to it, concluding with the exultant declaration of his love. He continues to address the sunflower in the second person for the rest of the poem, until the last line makes it apparent that he addresses not just the Helianthus blossom, or even his companion Kerouac, but "anyone
who'll listen" --- the entire human race. With his "sermon", the poem reaches its climax and conclusion:
---We're not our skin of grime, we're not our dead bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we're all golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our eyes under the
shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision.
This line summarizes the poem and encapsulates its meaning. In short, as the wise Jedi Master Yoda tells his disciple Luke in The Empire Strikes Back "Luminous beings are we... not this crude matter". Although the sunflower of the human collective soul is tainted by its cover of the grime of modern existence, Ginsberg's final glorious vision reveals his optimistic hope for the enlightenment and salvation that are also the subject of Blake's "Ah! Sun-flower".
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