The Antidote: Classic Poetry For Modern Life

A Reading of 'The Smile' by William Blake

By Christopher Nield Created: March 8, 2012 Last Updated: March 14, 2012
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(Liza Voronin/The Epoch Times)

(Liza Voronin/The Epoch Times)

The Smile

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 heart’s deep core,
And it sticks in the deep back bone.
And no smile that ever was smiled
But only one smile alone,

That betwixt the cradle and grave
It only once smiled can be;
But when it once is smiled,
There’s an end to all misery.

—William Blake (1757–1827)

What could be more innocent than a smile? Yet certain smiles are not as straightforward as they seem. To understand that, we merely need to glance around us. Which smiles should we answer with a smile of our own—and which smiles should we answer, instead, with a frown?

This poem begins with the smile we spend our lives longing to see: the “smile of love.” Yet there is a shadow: the “smile of deceit.” Are these opposites or two aspects of the same relationship? Somehow there is a “smile of smiles” that combines the two. What does this smile look like—can we imagine it?

The poem’s insistent repetition asks for the words to be proclaimed, rather than read silently. If we place the emphasis on “there” each time Blake repeats “there is,” we seem to see him pointing out people in the street—as if saying, “look at that man’s face over there and what about that woman’s expression over there?” To the poet, any crowd reveals the innermost secrets of existence.

In the second stanza, our perspective flips. The smile is replaced with a frown. Love turns to hate. There is the frown of disdain, the thunderous scowl of judgement. As there is a “smile of smiles,” so there is also a “frown of frowns” that once seen we would “strive” to forget.

To whom do these supreme smiles and frowns belong? Is Blake suggesting that human happiness, imperfectly expressed, finds its perfection in God? And that, conversely, human savagery is most intensely expressed by the Devil? Or is he posing a more abstract question of whether the universe is ultimately benevolent or malevolent? If so, how do we answer?

The frown “sticks” in the heart and the bone. The image of the “heart’s deep core” evokes life at its most joyous and primal. Yet the “deep back bone” reminds us of the skeleton beneath our flesh, our crumbling remnants in the grave. We associate “back bone” with self-confidence and courage—sticking to our principles. This frown therefore humbles such pride, making us crawl on the ground.

In this third stanza, the transition from the frown to the smile is so quick that the two become confused. It’s as if the two have merged—or even that the frown is now being smiled. It is only when we read the last stanza that the relationship between the images is made clearer, yet a disturbing cloud of ambiguity hangs over the lines, as if we can’t quite grasp their significance.
Stylistically, the poem is written as a ballad, giving it tremendous gusto and energy, with a pounding rhythm carrying us through each stanza. Blake uses the simplest of words to create a mood of both deep moral conviction and yet mystery. Take the constant repetition of “smile” and “frown.” Like words we repeat to ourselves over and over again they begin to lose all rhyme and reason, leading to a sense of dizziness and dislocation.  

The final stanza builds to a vision of the smile that is only once smiled. Afterwards, there is an “end to all misery.” At first, we may think this returns us to the “smile of love” mentioned in the opening line—and perhaps it does. Yet gangsters talk about putting a man out of his misery before putting a gun to his head! Does this smile result in death? Or does it lead to new life? Like the Cheshire Cat’s grin in “Alice in Wonderland,” it hangs in the air long after we finish the poem. Its meaning remains profound, unforgettable, and yet endlessly elusive.

William Blake (1757–1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker, famous for such poems as “The Tyger” and “The Mental Traveller.”

Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.


Selected Topics from The Epoch Times

Wayne Dean Doyle