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BLAKE’S MAIDEN QUEEN IN “THE ANGEL”

I dreamt a Dream! what can it mean?
And that I was a maiden Queen:
Guarded by an Angel mild:
Witless woe was neer beguil’d!

And I wept both night and day
And he wip’d my tears away
And I wept both day and night
And hid from him my hearts delight

So he took his wings and fled:
Then the morn blush’d rosy red:
I dried my tears and armd my fears
With ten thousand shields and spears.

Soon my Angel came again;
I was arm’d, he came in vain:
For the time of youth was fled
And grey hairs were on my head.

“The Angel”: William Blake’s Writings, ed. G. E. Bentley, Jr. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978), I, 184.

On the interpretation of “The Angel” from Blake’s Songs of Experience there is substantial agreement amongst commentators (notably Wicksteed, Damon, Hirsch, Adams, Keynes, Bateson, Gleckner, Gillham, Stevenson). The poem is appropriately grouped with “An old maid early” and “The Golden Net” as an illustration of the theme of “ungratified desires.” The dreamer enjoys the angel’s affections but hides from him her “hearts delight” and plays upon his sympathy by weeping. When he eventually flies away she resorts to coquetry to entice him back, but by the time he returns it is too late. Some such paraphrase, and a footnote or two (to lines 4 and 12), will satisfy most readers, but some may still want to linger over the second line and ask: why a “maiden Queen”?

So far as I am aware, two rather different explanations have been offered: Joseph Wicksteed (Blake’s Innocence and Experience, 1928, p. 158) describes the dreamer as a “petted child always being made a queen of,” which suggests a degree of vanity and assertiveness, while Robert Gleckner (The Piper and the Bard, 1959, p. 263) likens her to Thel, who is both a virgin and, in the words of the lily and the matron clay, “Queen of the Vales,” and this comparison suggests a character rather more timid and fragile.

I would like to add a third perspective on the phrase, one which I believe reinforces the poem’s theme of hidden love. There are two famous “maiden begin page 134 | back to top Queens” in history, Elizabeth I of England and Christina of Sweden, both of whom withstood much pressure and some inclination to marry. The remarkable life of Queen Christina was the inspiration of Mme. de Scudéry’s romance The History of Cleobuline, Queen of Corinth in volume II of Le Grand Cyrus (1649-53), which in turn became the basis of Dryden’s play Secret Love, or The Maiden Queen (1668). The nameless Sicilian Queen of this play is secretly in love with Philocles, whom she affects to rebuff one moment and entices the next. Inflamed by jealousy of Philocles’ love for Candiope, and unwilling to reveal her own love, she so completely baffles Philocles with her erratic moods that he decides to flee, but a series of twists in the plot sees him return to court, by now aware of her true feelings and half-inclined to woo her. Honor, however, and the conventions of comedy, determine otherwise, and at the end of the play the Queen resigns herself to remaining a maid.

The parallels between poem and play are naturally limited, yet Dryden’s maiden Queen and Blake’s share the same basic predicament:

And I wept both day and night,
And hid from him my hearts delight . . .

(“The Angel,” 7-8)

. . . I have conceal’d my passion
With such care from hi, that he knows not yet
I love . . .

(Secret Love, III, i, 48-50, in Beaurline and Bowers, eds., John Dryden: Four Comedies, 1967)
Philocles is not exactly an “Angel mild,” yet when he contemplates union with the maiden Queen he is moved to remark:
Sure I had one of the fallen Angels Dreams;
All Heav’n within this hour was mine!

(V, i, 448-49)
But the lines from Dryden’s play which might provide the most enlightening gloss on Blake’s poem are the words of the maiden Queen’s song in IV, ii, of which I quote here the opening stanza:
I feed a flame within which so torments me
That it both pains my heart, and yet contents me:
’Tis such a pleasing smart, and I so love it,
That I had rather die, than once remove it.

(IV, ii, 23-26)
Witless woe, if you like, but not without beguilement! The “hearts delight” that causes Blake’s dreamer to weep is clearly akin to the “pleasing smart” of this little song of secret love, and Blake’s one and only use of the phrase “maiden Queen,” I suggest, is a deliberate nod in this direction.

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