William Blake’s “The Smile”

Commentary by Ralph Dumain

The Poem

The Smile
by William Blake

There is a Smile of Love
And there is a Smile of Deceit
And there is a Smile of Smiles
In which these two Smiles meet

And there is a Frown of Hate
And there is a Frown of Disdain
And there is a Frown of Frowns
Which you strive to forget in vain

For it sticks in the Hearts deep Core
And it sticks in the deep Back bone
And no Smile that ever was smild
But only one Smile alone

That betwixt the Cradle & Grave
It only once Smild can be
But when it once is Smild
Theres an end to all Misery

(from the Pickering Manuscript, circa 1803)

The Commentary

There is no poet who has delved so deeply and critically into human nature and society, questioning our presuppositions and evoking a sense of the uncanny, like William Blake. “The Smile” says in four stanzas what 1000 philosophers could not say in 1000 books. This poem reflects the two-fold nature of human existence, as well as the duality between appearance and reality, by simultaneously revealing and concealing its inner meaning. Behind the finite interpersonal meanings of smiles and frowns, which ought not to mislead us about the totality comprised of positive and negative moments, there is a whole other layer of significance. The smile of smiles, whose inner nature is invisible, can only function in the finite world by means of potentially deceptive appearances, either as love or deceit depending on the character of the recipient. The frown of frowns—bitter experience beyond merely personal discord— induces radical self-doubt, which can only be relieved by an equally cosmic smile which surmounts the traps of the finite and restores the self. Thus Blake, by smiling upon my hungry consciousness with his intelligence as no one else can, fills me up with indescribable joy and helps me to surmount all disappointments.

Written 22 June 2001
©2001 Ralph Dumain

The poem and an editorially mangled excerpt from this commentary are published in Poems to Read: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology, edited by Robert Pinsky and Maggie Dietz (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, June 2002), pp. 256-257, under the auspices of the Favorite Poem Project initiated by Robert Pinsky, Poet Laureate of the United States, 1997-2000.

Celebrating the memory of
William Blake — Artist, Poet, Visionary, Revolutionary:
28 November 1757 - 12 August 1827

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William Blake Study Guide


The Archives of Victorian Literary Studies: Concordances - William Blake

Blake Digital Text Project
[now at Arizona State University Libraries]

The William Blake Archive

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Uploaded 19 November 2001
Updated 4 June 2002

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