'Joy & Woe Are Woven Fine': William Blake's Words for the Grieving

Drinking With Men author Rosie Schaap describes stumbling upon the words of "Auguries of Innocence" at the time she needed them most.

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Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

When I asked Rosie Schaap, who writes the New York Times Magazine's Drink column, about her favorite lines from literature, she came back with four plaintive lines from a longer poem by William Blake. Blake was a fierce critic of industrialization whose poems lambasted the "dark satanic mills" cropping up all over England's countryside. But he was a mystic, too, who understood the contradictions that simmer within the human heart. His insight on the paradoxical relationship between joy and grieving became a comfort to Schaap during a period of brutal loss.

Schapp's memoir, Drinking With Men (Riverhead Books), is a love letter to the cozy bars, stiff cocktails, and memorable drunks that she has known. Devoting a chapter to each of the 10 pubs that have served her best—and this is a writer who estimates she's spent more than 13,000 hours drinking in public—it's an exploration of the bar's social importance and cathartic power.

Rosie Schaap: Quite a long time ago, a lamb with the face of William Blake appeared at my bedside in a vision, and may have saved my life. I recount the event in my memoir, Drinking With Men.

I'd first read Blake not long before that visitation, in a college class taught by the poet Alvin Feinman. If Blake's language initially eluded me, I heard in his poems a call for a better world, for a more imaginative and empathetic way to live. He spoke loudest to the part of me concerned with justice, giving an impassioned voice to my indignation. The works I clung to were those that seemed most politically damning: "London," the twinned chimney sweeps of the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, the more scathing "Proverbs of Hell" in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Feinman—who was no reactionary—suggested that if I briefly set aside my "junior Marxist training," I might actually read the poems. He was right. I could never fully retire that lens, but the less I have read through it alone, the more I have received from Blake. A few years ago, during a period of particularly deep grieving, I opened my collected Blake to "Auguries of Innocence." My eyes landed here:

Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine

I hadn't intended this exercise in bibliomancy. I expected nothing of it. And my mourning did not end. My dead loved one was not revived.

But in a quietly perceptible way, my experience of grief shifted, as though the passage told me to live in that grief as long as I might need, that—through memories, through love, through the very impulse to grieve—it was entwined with joy; that stitched somewhere in my sadness—which seemed insurmountable—was a thread of happiness. This time, Blake did not save my life. Instead, he lit a little votive in the small, dark chapel of loss, by whose light I started to see a way through.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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