Reflections on William Blake’s Eternity

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

An endless title, for such a brief poem. And a curious title. Three-fourths of the poem’s lines are about joy, the fourth about the titular ETERNITY. Those three little lines–that brief message–this brief moment–is pressed between ETERNITIES: in preface, in conclusion.

William Blake is writing to teach us. He instructs us in two sets of coupled lines, composed in a structure of ‘wrong behavior-negative result; right behavior-positive result’. The behavior to be taught: the way to relate to the joys in life. 

He who binds to himself a joy

Binding implies a resistance, either inherent in the nature of an inanimate object, or by the volition of an animate object. If something is bound, it is not free to go on its natural course, even as a bundle of grain is prevented from its gravitational scattering. To bind a joy to oneself, I take to mean a selfish appreciation of it.

Does the winged life destroy;

Whose ‘winged life’ is destroyed, the man’s? or the joy’s? Or both? Winged, can signify a life that is elevated, flying; it can signify a life that is transient, fleeting. Here, it may mean both.

On to his counter-example:

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

But: in contrast to the previous erroneous behavior. Notice the definite article change from ‘a‘ in line 1, to ‘the‘ here, indicating that these are two possible postures toward the same postulated ‘joy’.

Joy flies. This supports the idea that the winged life that was destroyed was the joy’s. But it may have layers of meaning. Kisses the joy as it flies, is to allow the joy to remain unaltered in its course by your appreciation. Give the joy its autonomy, and let it fly as it will.

Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

Destroyed life is juxtaposed with Eternal life, suggesting that they may share an object after all, the man’s life.

Eternity’s sun rise. Three words with tension in the spaces between. The sun rise is a marker of time, but in the timeless? The sun rise is a beginning, but does eternity have one? Perhaps it is a general image of red-hot, blazing joy.

Or, quite likely, it is religious, literal in a sense. This is William Blake, after all. It could be a simple gospel of salvation through your relationship to life’s joys. Winged life, heavenly life, afterlife, renewal, a new day, a sun rise. Eternal life is destroyed through selfish joys. 

In sum: the enduring is wrought in the momentary.


One thought on “Reflections on William Blake’s Eternity

  1. I love this analysis, thank you! For me it is all about the joy of every moment inherent to the moment itself; so eternally we are having moments, so eternally is joy possible; but if we assume joy can only be had with a specific moment, then our own joy is not only limited, but non-existent.

    Liked by 1 person

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