This is one of Blake’s most quoted poems – well, at least the first line of it.
I think it has taken humanity a long time to realize that this is true. We’ve spent centuries believing that the we were the center of the universe (and there are still some who hold that to be true, I’m certain you’ve met them) and just as many who held onto the idea that everything is simple.
For those who do not take the time to question the things around them, not really understanding in any real depth how things work (and are always confounded as to why people simply don’t do things the way they do them – “where’s your common sense!” they shout), a grain of sand is just a tiny piece of dirt. They see no connection of themselves with the rest of the world. They have no idea that the intricate and complex systems moving about underneath the surface of the simple mundane world even exist and counter with something ignorant like “it can’t be that complex.”
For instance, Microbiologists compare the inside of the body to a war zone – bacteria and viruses on the one side and the body’s defense system on the other. Most people can’t comprehend how apt a metaphor this is, with all of the various tactics that these invisible warriors use to gain ground within the living systems they inhabit – they are subtle and ingenious. And these are things that don’t even have brains.
Packed into a grain of sand could be all of the layers of chemicals that are contained within the layers of the planet, but it is more than this. That grain is the story of the earth. It started out as one thing and then the elements got a hold of it and changed it to another. Who knows what it could have been, perhaps part of a mountain, perhaps some of its molecules could have been part of the body of a fish or a bird or Alexander the Great. To say that we are not connected in any way, to say that you understand everything because the explanations are simple, is to live in a bubble and be dumb to the greater universe around you. My way is the only way, are the words of a man too stupid to even be his own master – for he doesn’t even comprehend how complex he himself is.
This poem bears a stark resemblance to the yesterday’s posting. It compares one small thing to the greater Whole, but does so not in the concrete, instead it uses metaphor. “The world in a grain of sand.” The two are both made of earth and are both round(ish). “eternity in an hour” compares all of time to one small unit and suggests that the small reflects the large. The poem also suggests that to know this small thing right on down to its essence is to know the greater thing. But there lies the challenge, for within the essence of the small is an infinity of knowledge.
It’s a nice statement, but how is it true? Well, for instance, I wanted to learn the art of sewing and thought that’ll take an hour or two, can’t be that complex, pull needle through thread. After four hours, I gave up. The monster I had constructed was a mess of knots that were all falling apart. And the amount of terms, types of seams and stitches were infinite (and with each one I needed to know which was appropriate for which type of situation). I worked a job just putting together cards for a printing company. Things had to be inserted and the paper needed to be folded. This seemed like the most simple task in the world and there were only 250 of them and four of us. But it turned out to be complex – there was a method to it if we wanted to get it done on time and get them all done correctly. I didn’t think a method for something as simple as folding a piece of paper existed, but it does. Heck, scientists can even explain how the Hydrogen atom works and it is the simplest matter in the universe – One proton (often unaccompanied by its one electron). So, simple on the surface, is not so simple after all.
To See A World In A Grain Of Sand
by William Blake
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour