“It is right it should be so”? William Blake and the Problem of Suffering

In the below lines from “Auguries of Innocence” (written in the first decade of the 1800s) William Blake suggests that suffering and joy are necessarily woven together—and are, metaphorically, the clothing of the soul. But why suffering must accompany joy (and vice versa) the poet does not explain (55-62):

It is right it should be so:

Man was made for Joy & Woe,

And when this we rightly know

Thro the World we safely go.

Joy & Woe are woven fine,

A Clothing for the Soul divine;

Under every grief & pine

Runs a joy with silken twine.

As Freudian psychology this sounds right (sublimated beneath every yes is a no; behind each pleasure lurks a pain). But as philosophy, I’m less sure of these lines. Blake seems to be suggesting something a bit more than, say, Arthur Schopenhauer, who wrote repeatedly that one should adopt a Stoic attitude toward suffering (for it is inevitable).

Blake, contra Schopenhauer’s pessimism, seems to suggest that suffering is more than just something to exercise resignation towards, but is interwoven with life and joy, and should not be accepted for Stoic reasons, but because “It is right it should be so.” In this, Blake seems to be in sympathy with Liebnitz—the philosopher parodied by Voltaire (in Candide) for insisting that the world as it is, with all its absurdity and suffering, is, nevertheless, “the best of all possible worlds.” He also anticipates Nietzsche somewhat, in that Nietzsche asserted that a life of virtue and creativity entails working with pain–even embracing it–rather than avoiding it.

Blake also sits well with Buddhism. If you accept (rather than resist the fact) that life is tied up with suffering, you’ll go “safely” through the world.

Still, I wonder how Blake might have responded, were he alive today, to the horrors of the 20th century. How, for example, could the Holocaust possibly be part of the “right” functioning of the universe and the soul?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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7 Responses to “It is right it should be so”? William Blake and the Problem of Suffering

  1. aunty dawkins says:

    Isn’t Blake here simply re-articulating another ancient truth that without sadness there is no joy, without dark no light, without evil no good etc. The existence of one prerequisit to experience the other? Blake sees this balance as being somehow ‘right’,a natural symmetry, otherwise life would be a bland mediocrity.
    I don’t think he is using the adjective ‘right’as an ethical judgement.The validity of this truth is not altered by extreme horrors like the holocaust for although the sufferers are undergoing only pain their human condition still allows them to experience joy in other circumstances.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Aunty Dawkins:

    I think that you are right—that may have been how Blake uses the word “right”—as in “fit.”

    I just find the problem of extreme evil—and the Holocaust as the exemplum of extreme evil—impossibly vexing (should one choose to believe in God). I don’t think Blake helps untangle the vexation (at least for me).


  3. aunty dawkins says:

    You come up with very stimulating stuff you must be a good teacher?
    Glad we agree on that Blake text anyway. I suppose if we follow the logic of ‘natural symmetry’ as I called it, if great good exists then so will great evil. The degree of evil manifested in the Holocaust, for example was as you say of scarcely credible magnitude and although we can recognise and condemn that great evil as we do the Bosnian,Rowandan etc atrocities it appears that similar events will occur again. The scale of the events makes them more shocking but the propensity for such behaviour lurks in all of us. Blake encourages us to recognise that evil resides alongside good, joy resides alongside pain, weakness alongside strength in all of us. But this allows us to accept our earthly fate and at the same time live to the full as individuals with free will and gives us some say in our destiny. We are not after all totally helpless but free will cannot exist without its opposite either.

    BTW did you agree at all with my reading of the Hardy?

  4. Giovanne says:

    what do you mean in the line..

    It is right it should be so;
    Man was made for joy and woe;
    And when this we rightly know,
    Thro’ the world we safely go.

  5. eachdo says:

    The holocaust could be seen as an example of the extreme horror of which humans are capable when there IS resistance to “woe”. Had German powers and the cultural consciousness in that state accepted the economic realities, accepted the woe of their defeated state, accepted the frustration and suffering as part of a larger cycle, or even adopted a stoic stance, perhaps they would not have been so quick to find a scapegoat to inflict such unimaginable cruelty upon. So quick to stimulate the economy with murder and profound evil.

  6. Paule Deneau says:

    Another possibility might be that ‘rightfully know’ is the ability to understand ‘woe’ as human suffering within boundaries of the human heart, events that we have no agency for,/ even today with still many incurable diseases) such as loss of loved ones,illness,death and poverty, but not inhumanity through barbarism, war, holocausts, or torture etc. over which we have some agency. It seems wanting that a poet would express the aftermath of a genocide or brutal war as woe-full. Wouldn’t a poet’s words be at least as galvanizing as the words in The Smashing Pumpkins song, ” The World is a Vampire”, or ‘ Dulce et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen. Amateur ageing poetry lover here.

  7. Pingback: Joy and Woe. A time to grieve. | Recipes for Disaster

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