As someone who appreciates and enjoys poetry, it’s easy to quickly notice a title such as ‘Now Art Has Lost its Mental Charms,’ straight away, the title makes you think about the nature of art and its place in the world today; its charms, its beauties, its intricacies. William Blake’s commonplace book contains this brief sketch of a poem. Here is an analysis of ‘Now Art Has Lost its Mental Charms.’
Now Art Has Lost its Mental Charms William Blake `Now Art has lost its mental charms France shall subdue the world in arms.' So spoke an Angel at my birth; Then said `Descend thou upon earth, Renew the Arts on Britain's shore, And France shall fall down and adore. With works of art their armies meet And War shall sink beneath thy feet. But if thy nation Arts refuse, And if they scorn the immortal Muse, France shall the arts of peace restore And save thee from the ungrateful shore.' Spirit who lov'st Britannia's Isle Round which the fiends of commerce smile --
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Analysis of Now Art Has Lost its Mental Charms
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`Now Art has lost its mental charms
France shall subdue the world in arms.’
So spoke an Angel at my birth;
Then said `Descend thou upon earth,
Renew the Arts on Britain’s shore,
And France shall fall down and adore.
‘Now Art Has Lost its Mental Charms’ starts by establishing a rhyming structure, a simple AABB pattern, and begins the story that Blake is trying to convey. This stanza describes the narrator’s brief encounter with an angel, at some point before or during his birth into the world. The angel tells him that art has become less pleasing to people and that for many in France, thoughts of art are being replaced with thoughts of the military. So if the narrator is born in Britain and can renew interest in art in his homeland, he can prevent a brewing war.
The initial theme of ‘Now Art Has Lost its Mental Charms’ is expressed here, a commonly heard idea that love triumphs over hate, to put it in simple terms. The angel is claiming that a mutual interest in arts, a powerful boom of culture in Britain will make its neighbors stop and think about the necessities of wartime atrocities and reconsider their actions. It’s a very optimistic theme for the poem to begin on, but it’s a nice idea — that if only everyone were to step back a bit and think about how beautiful life truly is, then perhaps we could avoid so much unnecessary pain and bloodshed.
With works of art their armies meet
And War shall sink beneath thy feet.
The angel is still speaking in this brief stanza. What it says is almost too pleasant to imagine — two armies, each soldier armed to the teeth with culture. The idea of war forgotten, the two armies begin — presumably — discussing and debating art. It almost sounds like a line from a modern movie, but it continues the rhyming pattern and optimistic theme expressed by the angel at the birth of the narrator.
But if thy nation Arts refuse,
And if they scorn the immortal Muse,
France shall the arts of peace restore
And save thee from the ungrateful shore.’
The last of the angel’s dialogue takes on a darker path. to “scorn the immortal Muse” is another way of saying to scorn art. In Greek and Roman mythology, the muses were the daughters of Zeus who were goddesses of art and science. The idea that France would “save thee from the ungrateful shore,” likely referencing the narrator’s task to bring art to the “shores” of Britain, suggests that without the narrator’s intervention, France’s military action will commence, resulting in a war. This war would bring “the arts of peace” to Britain (“restore” once referred to making amends for something), suggesting that France would be the victor in the war, and art would return to Britain through French culture.
Spirit who lov’st Britannia’s Isle
Round which the fiends of commerce smile
The final stanza of ‘Now Art Has Lost its Mental Charms’ suggests that Britain has been too long devoted to commerce to care about art and culture. The “spirit who lov’st” (an obsolete spelling of “lovest”) Britannia’s Isle sounds like a metaphor for arts and culture, something that has been lost and replaced with greed for money. Since this is no longer being spoken by the angel, it is conceivable that the narrator has been born, and is observing his world, devoid of the artistic marvels that he was born to create.
An Incomplete Story?
‘Now Art Has Lost its Mental Charms’ was never published by William Blake. It can be found in the Rossetti Manuscript, named after Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which was a personal notebook for William Blake for years. While many of the poems that were written in the book appear in complete form elsewhere, or as a part of the Songs of Experience, many never appeared again after their entry. This is one of those poems, and it is unfortunate that it was never completed, finishing only at the beginning of the story.
William Blake was an artist. His notebook, the one this poem is found in, is filled with poems, yes, but also with sketches, designs, and humorous asides that paint the picture of a man strongly influenced by artistic culture. Blake was alive during the French Revolution, which eventually gave birth to the period of romanticism, a time in France that saw the developments of a great many artistic styles. Many famous artists used the post-Revolution period in France to defy the limits on what art was and to create new definitions, and stretch new boundaries. Meanwhile, in England, William Blake drew his sketches and was considered to be insane by his fellow artists.
In that light, ‘Now Art Has Lost its Mental Charms’ can be seen as an angry sentiment. Perhaps Blake is even wishing that the French would invade England; sweep away the commerce sentiments and replace his own culture with one that would appreciate and love art as much as he likely did. Or perhaps this poem expresses how he would have liked to see himself, as someone who is misunderstood for a purpose, someone who can usher in change where he feels he needs to. This would not necessarily to avoid a war, or at least not a literal one, but perhaps on in his own mind, an unbearable anger he must have felt at least at some points in his life, to realize how much the world was letting him down.
Since this poem was never published, it makes a little more sense to think of the poem being about Blake himself, perhaps even as a mission statement as to what he wanted to do, in his own way, for the culture of Britain. What Blake truly intended by this poem is not something that is readily known — after all, he never sought to have it published, leaving it to be discovered in his notebook only after it had been passed on. Still, it is interesting to think that now, a long time after his death, Blake’s poetry has renewed a bit of artistic culture. Many are inspired and awed by his works, and he is famous today — so perhaps it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that if indeed this was a mission statement for him, then he can rest knowing that this particular mission has been completed.