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Featured Poem: The Fly by William Blake

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 9th August 2010

One of the perils – or rather, quite minor but still a significant irritation – of summertime is the endless parade of insects that decide to take a long detour indoors through open windows and doors. It’s fine for them, buzzing about, zipping up, down, around and sideways, exploring the confines of four walls and taking in the sights, but not for you as you flap about with a rolled up newspaper or other quickly assembled aid, spending fruitless and frustrating minutes trying to shoo out the small but super-fast intruder before it lands inevitably on a freshly-made sandwich. Over the past week, our house has played host to a sprinkling of ants, a couple of spiders, three wasps (which has increased my already existing paranoia about those particular creatures, leading me to jump up and be at instant alert at any faint buzzing sound heard in the distance – even when the majority of times the noise turns out to be, somewhat embarrassingly, a lawnmower) and several microscopic but persistent flies. (I am aware that this admission doesn’t make my dwelling seem like the cleanest of places but rest assured, it is meticulously maintained.)

Though they do register fairly high on my personal scale of everyday things that annoy, I’m not so cruel that I set out to squash the life out of said flies, wielding a makeshift fly swatter as a weapon; if one flies into my line of vision or personal space, I’m more likely to wave my hand rather weakly to allow it to drift off somewhere else for a few seconds. Of course, it does depend on the size of the fly – that’s not so easy to do with a super-sized bluebottle. But even then, I’d prefer to open the door and coax it back to the wild outdoors than to end its days with a swift slap. I can’t say that my caring nature extends to wasps, who I insist on being obliterated if they dare to enter (by someone else, obviously – I’m too much of a wimp to risk incurring the wrath of those devilish beings).

Maybe I should be a little more sympathetic to all insects, whether they be harmless or slightly more threatening, inspired by my revisiting of this piece by William Blake. In his Songs of Innocence and Experience Blake examines many aspects of our natural world and considers various parts of the animal kingdom – the imposing strength of the tiger, a creature perhaps sinister and brutal yet mesmerising; contrasted with the tame, gentle and innocent lamb. Through the comparison of these animals, Blake highlights the often contrasting facets of life. As enraptured with nature and everything contained within it, Blake also chooses as a point of inspiration a thing as seemingly insignificant as a fly. Indeed, straight away Blake himself concedes that the fly is by all accounts unimportant, a mere speck used to being thoughtlessly brushed away. But, as with all of the ‘songs’, Blake then ventures to look deeper, pondering the state of the human existence through that of something so much smaller and apparently pointless. His asking ‘Am I not a fly like thee?/Or art not thou a man like me?’ brings into question: just how exactly superior and important are humans? Are our lives really all that significant, when they can just as easily be interrupted with the brush of a ‘blind hand’. It is interesting to consider the similarities – or differences – of the ‘thoughtless hand’ that swats away the fly, with the ‘blind hand’ – perhaps of some ‘higher power’ – that touches a person. Maybe such ‘hands’ are needed to give us reminders not to be so careless, a consequence to our frivolous actions. Perhaps us humans are the biggest irritation of them all – more often than not, we certainly annoy each other more than any insect does – and we could learn something from ‘a happy fly’. Whatever meanings are to be found it does seem rather appropriate that a poem about an apparently inconsequential thing opens up to produce so many possibilities. And rather sobering, as well as partly amusing, to think that we may be part of a hierarchy; the equivalent of an annoying fly to something, or someone else.

The Fly

Little Fly,
Thy summer's play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

William Blake (1757-1827)

2 thoughts on “Featured Poem: The Fly by William Blake

louise says:

AT first read this and thought I dont have anything in common with a fly as a fly goes all over the place and never stays in one place unless banged over the head with a newspaper , wereas i am quite happy not moving or going anywhere.

I thought abit more of the noise a fly makes a sort of irritating hum that just drones on and on and I thought “HEY I am like a FLYas countless people have told me that I get on their nerves like a fly droning on and when excited very rarely take time to breathe.
At times I wish I could fly right off the planet and perhaps find some peaceaway from everything and everybody but then I have a good nights sleep and have a more realistic view of life, and think of the fly””LETS go and find some people to irritate and off I buzz!!!

f.j. says:

I like the idea of the perils of a minor but still, ‘significant iritation’ – the fly, something quite incongruous with the usual sense of beauty. It reminded me of some lines in a Milan Kundera book –

‘ Forms which are in themselves quite ugly turn fortuitiously, without design, in such incredible surroundings that they sparkle with a sudden wondrous poetry.’ It’s great isn’t it! For me anyhow as I’ve never properly mastered the ‘idea of the absolute’ especially when thinking about ‘beauty’, I’m less harmoniously inclined.

Poetry, intuitively channels into something less absolute with words – connects into maybe an unknown, abrasive contradictoriness, something that could be more accidental than our usual knowing certainty?

Yes, so to the fly….no first to an ant…..(this one finds itself crawling accidentally into a J.P. Donleavy book –

‘Samuel S lowered himself slowly in the hot water. An ant strayed from the herd was crawling on his leg, climbing to his knee top and zooming in crazy circles there as this island of refuge sank beneath the water. The ant floating, churning madly on the surface trying to swim for shore. It was desperate. Antennae flapping in despair. And Samuel S gently let it up on a finger. Against all instincts to kill it…..And with a flick he sent it flying to safety.’

Weird and beautiful isn’t it? Is the ant better off surviving the drowning or not? What may seem like a hostile action is actually not without hope . But the last few lines of this particular book seem to contradict this as Donleavy likens his protagonist, Samuel S to a fly :-

A summer fly
Waltzes out
And wobbles
In the winter.’

But again there is some accidental fiestiness in amongst the vulnerable ‘Waltze and wobble’ for me it cancels out the certainty of any absolute hierarchy or premeditated knowing of anything. Again I’ll go back to the Milan Kundera book where one of his characters thinks –

“Uninentional beauty. Yes. Another way of putting it might be ‘beauty by mistake.’ Before beauty disappears entirely from the earth, it will go on existing for a while by mistake.”

A bit modern and confusing but as if to say we do not know any exact forms and meanings and so words especially in poetry (and poetry exists in prose) ask for more – a kind of beauty by mistake.

And maybe Louise is more of a poet than she realises.

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