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Vol. 46 no. 3: Winter 2012–13

Deciphering Blake’s “The Angel that presided o’er my birth”

16 January 2013
21 Dec. 2022


The stimulus for this investigation of manuscript variants in one of Blake’s Notebook poems arises from an unlikely quarter: Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965). Vonnegut’s use of Blake is purposeful. In Slaughterhouse-Five the narrator states (by way of Kilgore Trout) that “William Blake” was “[Eliot] Rosewater’s favorite poet” (99), and in a 1977 interview in the Paris Review Vonnegut specifically notes, “I was thirty-five before I went crazy about Blake.” In Rosewater, Eliot Rosewater, traumatized by his experience in World War II, dedicates his life and extraordinary wealth to a compensatory form of philanthropy for the population of Rosewater, Indiana. Eliot has written his personal manifesto on the step risers leading up to his office to remind himself and his clients of his life’s purpose and personal vision. His manifesto is identified in Vonnegut’s text only as “a poem by William Blake” (65). The poem is traditionally referred to by its first line, “The Angel that presided o’er my birth,” as rendered in Keynes’s Nonesuch edition, almost certainly Vonnegut’s source. Obscuring Blake’s rhyme scheme, Vonnegut separates the three-line poem into twelve sections, one for each riser.