There’s a wonderful bit in episode six of Ken Burns’ Country Music when singer and songwriter Kris Kristofferson — a former Rhodes Scholar who studied the Romantic poets! — is explaining his decision to turn his back on a distinguished military career and move to Nashville to be a janitor and write country songs:
I love William Blake…. William Blake said, “If he who is organized by the divine for spiritual communion, refuse and bury his talent in the earth, even though he should want natural bread, shame and confusion of face will pursue him throughout life to eternity.”
He’s telling you that you’ll be miserable if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do.
His mother was so disgusted with his decision that she wrote him a letter disowning him for embarrassing the family. (Johnny Cash read it and joked, “Isn’t it nice to get a letter from home?”)
Elsewhere, Kristofferson liked to quote other Blake lines to describe what he was doing. “The Road of Excess leads to the palace of wisdom” or “If the fool persists in his folly, he will become wise.”
The quoted Blake passage from the documentary comes from a letter he wrote to Thomas Butts, a patron and friend, in January 10th, 1803. He talks about his wife’s poor health, declines an offer of money, and then talks about what he’s working on out in the country, away from the city:
but Patience! if Great things do not turn out it is because such things depend on the Spiritual & not on the Natural World & if it was fit for me I doubt not that I should be Employd in Greater things & when it is proper my Talents shall be properly exercised in Public as I hope they are now in private. for then I leave no stone unturnd & no path unexplord that tends to improvement in my beloved Arts.
He then talks about being torn, basically, between commerce and art:
But if we fear to do the dictates of our Angels & tremble at the Tasks set before us. if we refuse to do Spiritual Acts. because of Natural Fears or Natural Desires! Who can describe the dismal torments of such a state!—I too well remember the Threats I heard!-If you who are organized by Divine Providence for Spiritual communion. Refuse & bury your Talent in the Earth even tho you Should want Natural Bread. Sorrow & Desperation pursues you Thro life! & after death Shame & confusion of face to eternity — Every one in Eternity will leave you aghast at the Man who was crownd with glory & honour by his brethren & betrayd their cause to their enemies. You will be calld the base Judas who betrayd his Friend!— Such words would make any Stout man tremble & how then could I be at ease? But I am now no longer in That State & now go on again with my Task Fearless and tho my path is difficult. I have no fear of stumbling while I keep it
Then, without attribution, he quotes four lines (as two lines) from poet Thomas Tickell:
I hear a voice you cannot hear,
Which says I must not stay;
I see a hand you cannot see,
Which beckons me away.
Kristofferson could’ve quoted that bit back to his mother!
I’m thinking now about Keri Smith’s now-classic list, “How To Feel Miserable as an Artist,” which includes two references to family:
2. Talk to your family about what you do and expect them to cheer you on
8. Only do work that your family would love.
But back to Blake: I need to learn more about him, and here is a start.