William Blake was a man and a poet. The two archetypes he represented are not one in the same. He was an individual with a life and a journey yet to others he existed solely as a literary icon, an organic machine churning our creative produce to satiate the appetites of fans and critics worldwide and throughout history. His poems reflect his struggles as a man, most clearly elucidated by the transition from The Songs of Innocence to The Songs of Experience—Blake himself grew ever more jaded with the world as he experienced more of it. His poetic prowess and this fervent struggle through maturity and experience have led to verses that resonate so deeply with so many that they are alluded to in popular culture today.
The film The Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch inserts Blake’s poems into the script to extrapolates off the dichotomy or dualism in this one personality. The main character of the film is a man who has lost both his parents and his meager financial estates traveling to a town in the West called Machine. This young man’s name is William Blake and an illiterate man on his train informed him that he was traveling to the end of the line, headed to the end—and so he was. This young William Blake is not one of the most sublime minds of his time but rather an accountant who has gone through life none the wiser of his name-relation’s global accolade. However, his odyssey narrowly avoiding the long arm of the Western law symbolizes Blake, the man. Jarmusch’s Blake’s path to cruel cognizance embodies the depth of the life of the poet as a man who struggled with the cruder caresses of the reality around him and his own role in it.
The story sets off with young Blake, an accountant, being derided out of a job he naively thought he was guaranteed and in this experience, comes to learn that individuals are not trustworthy and life abides by no obligation to be fair, a lesson outlined by many poems in Blake’s Songs of Experience such as “My Pretty Rose Tree.” Directly following this valuable life lesson, accountant Blake meets the white paper rose maker Thel. He proceeds to sleep with her, witness her reject her ex-fiance’s re-declaration of his love for her, and her murder. He sits idly by, watching, until this moment when the bullet makes it clean through Thel and punctures his chest. He lifts Thel’s handgun and kills Charlie, the ex-fiance. The entire scene is set against the backdrop of a pool of white roses resting on the floor. The visual imagery alludes to Blake’s poem “The Sick Rose” as Thel, an innocent rose, is defiled and destroyed by a worm swept in by a chaotic storm. The accountant Blake escapes from the scene, a murderer now, steals a horse and runs off to nurse his own mortal wound while attempting to grasp the unsuspecting shift in reality he now faces.
At this junction in the story he meets Nobody, a native American Indian with a standard American accent and ridiculous face point who informs Blake that the bullet is lodged too far into his chest to be retrieved and the fact that he is still alive is an anomaly. With this man, Blake escapes bounty hunters on his trail and a vindictive vengeful father of the murdered ex-fiance. Along the way he confronts the juxtaposition of nature and mankind in the beauty his journey with Nobody shows him exists in nature and the nefarious tendencies of the other men the pair come across in their travels.
Nobody quotes many poems from Blake including lines from “Auguries of Innocence” and “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” two Blake poems pitting innocence against inevitable corruption as a paradox of life. The irony lies in the fact that Blake, a character who shares the same name as the poet Nobody so reverently quotes, does not recognize the poems let alone understand the lines. This twist furthers the notion that William Blake was not simply a poet, he was also a man as confused by the issues he wrote about as anyone and so, by not understanding the esoteric metaphoric value of the Blake poems, the accountant shows that the man William Blake also had flaws and shortcomings too—he was growing and learning like the rest of us.
At the story’s surmise, the film’s protagonist William Blake has transitioned from a timid accountant to a ruthless hell-bent killer who writes poetry with every shot he fires. The metamorphoses was brought on and nurtured by Nobody, the same man who saved him, but eventually this difficult journey through purgatory on Earth comes to end. Shot again, Blake finally deteriorates to the brink of death and Nobody appeals to a familiar tribe for a canoe to conduct a proper send-off rite for the dead so that he may cross to the other side. This crossing confirms the notion that the pair’s trip was one of purgatory, the necessary requisite to progress to the next stage of life and after-life.
The poet Blake largely considered his time on earth to be purgatory in that childhood purity is lost at such a young age and the defilement of innocence is an inevitability of growing up that all must suffer. Therefore, the poet Blake’s mental journey through this conceptual jungle mirrors the character Blake’s actual adventure through the Western jungle. They both come out with the realization that they are able to survive in this cruel world for a period of time but their deaths are largely out of their control. Furthermore, the world, while they were in it, proved itself to be merciless and fickle—fate was a function of whim and justice a misleading siren. The Native American named Nobody saved the movie-Blake, however, in Blake’s mind, nobody was there to save him.
Dead Man. Dir. Jim Jarmusch. Perf. Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer. Pandora Filmproduktion, 1995. Netflix.
“Works in the William Blake Archive.” Welcome to the William Blake Archive. Web. 27 Oct. 2011. <http://www.blakearchive.org/blake/indexworks.htm>.