Songs of Innocence and of Experience
Moral Judgement in William Blake’s Poetry (the Chimney Sweeper, Holy Thursday, London)
William Blake is often known as a painter, poet, mystic and imaginative artist. His imaginative vision led him to reject all rigid moral abstractions and show a vision of a self-sufficient, satisfying way of life in which freedom and security are held in perfect balance. These orientations are very clearly perceived in his literary work, and especially in his seminal collection of poems, Songs of Innocence and Experience, wherein such considerations are explored. Each of the poems actively refuses to confirm some of its readers’ most basic moral expectations. This refusal constitutes a fundamental poetic questioning of some of the most deep-rooted of polite eighteenth-century assumptions. Blake’s ‘London Poems’ (‘The Chimney Sweeper’, ‘Holy Thursday’ and ‘London’) in his Songs of Innocence and Experience convey an insight into how moral precepts had an active role in maintaining a disharmonious society by being abstract and far removed from concrete human experience with its resulting dehumanising influence.
In ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ from Songs of Innocence Blake attempts to show that humans’ best qualities such as mercy, pity, modesty and humility might be fundamentally challenged when applied to the experiences of other people. In ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ a young chimney-sweeper describes the dream of another sweeper, which offers an alternative to their miserable existence. When the poem appeared in 1789 the horrible conditions of the chimney-sweepers had elicited outrage from the general public, nearly causing a national scandal (Glen 95). However, the poem does not exhibit explicit protest or an appeal to the reader’s empathy to alleviate the circumstances of extreme poverty and hardship. The opening stanza opens instead with the unmediated voice of the chimney-sweeper himself reciting the facts concerning his life with a calm and distanced maturity (Glen 96):
When my mother died I was very young,
And my Father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘’weep! ‘weep!’ ‘weep!’
So your chimneys I sweep, & in soot I sleep. (1-4)
The facts recounted here characteristically describe the life story of a chimney-sweeper in the late eighteenth-century. The chimney-sweeper seems either very juvenile or too impassive to adopt an attitude of defiance concerning his miserable lot. However, the poetic effect of the stanza is not one of credulous acceptance on the part of the child, but it is rather something more disturbing. The little boy explains his life as an inescapable logical progression in which one thing naturally follows on from the next: ‘When… And… So…’. Nevertheless, it is exactly the strangeness of this progression that is emphasised by the child’s flatness of speech which prevents any regular metrical pattern from being established. The consequence is that the child’s apparently uncritical acceptance of the circumstances he finds himself in is not corroborated by the form of the verse itself (Glen 96). The outrage of the circumstances is expressed not by the child himself, but by the poetic framing of his speech.
Furthermore, the uneasiness felt in the rhythm is strengthened by the forthright speech of the chimney-sweeper which directly implicates the reader. This frankness is evident in the last line of the first stanza: ‘So your chimneys I sweep’ wherein “the polite reader is unemphatically but inescapably implicated” (Heather 96). By indicating that the polite reader him or herself is not merely a neutral observer of the poor conditions of the chimney-sweeper, Blake prevents him or her the luxury of a facile indulgence in sentimental pity. In this manner, Blake forces the reader to relinquish his or her position as one who is able to genuinely express compassion because he or she is actually involved in the maintaince of the very conditions he or she is appalled by.
In the second stanza the orientation suddenly shifts from the chimney-sweeper’s rational summary of his own life to a transcendent vision of sympathy with another sweeper named Tom Dacre. This vision awakens in the reader a sentiment of incredulity because it appears unrealistic or rather otherworldly, but it also implicitly commends the reader to admire the unselfishness of the relationship between the young chimney-sweepers.
The chimney-sweeper’s celebration of the other child’s beauty – ‘his head / That curl’d like a lamb’s back’ – becomes an affirmation that their friendship cannot be damaged by external factors:
for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair. (7-8)
It is impossible to discern any judgment in the above lines. Rather than a condemnatory attitude, the chimney-sweeper displays an entirely unselfish open relationship with the child which seems to be connected to the vision of an idyllic world. Despite the harsh working conditions, the chimney-sweepers are able to transform the “debased pragmatism” of their masters, which is responsible for those selfsame conditions, into an affirmation of a relationship based on mutual empathy rather than utility (Glen 97). By portraying this transcendent vision in all its liveliness Blake attempts to show how the master’s stern morality undercuts meaningful human relationships rather than allowing them to thrive.
Furthermore, this lively vision contrasts sharply with the rational, commonsense frame of reference evoked by the final moral injunction which epitomises the master’s pragmatism:
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm. (24)
The child seems merely to be reiterating the official language of the society, which also justifies his exploitation; between the lines one hears the voice of a master telling a boy that if he works hard he will not be punished. The ‘all’ in this last line seems to convey a radical irony comparable to the ‘your’ of the fourth line. While the ‘your’ directly implicated the reader in the condition of the sweepers, the ‘all’ refers does this indirectly. For if ‘all’ did their duty, in the sense of loving their neighbours as themselves, there would indeed be no ‘harm’ such as that in which this child must live. In a society such as this, where not all do their ‘duty’, the chimney-sweepers (‘they’) must indeed fear harm, for the whole of society (‘all’) is corrupt (Glen 99).
Following the transcendent dream, this ‘moral’ seems disturbingly dull. ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ would have forced the more alert reader to recognise that when his or her moral terms were really applied to actual social conditions as those of the chimney-sweepers these terms could seem disturbingly double-edged. For while the traditional moral values ensured a stable social order, they could at the same time also justify the appalling conditions of the chimney-sweepers present in that social order by stressing the importance of duty and submission. In this manner moral values are ambiguous because they can paradoxically be used to ensure order but also to maintain injustice.
It is further significant that the moral lesson seems to have no deliberate audience; this vagueness might indicate that nobody is exempt from guilt and that the society which Blake presents is hypocritical. The scathing criticism of moral precept in this poem suggests that for Blake the attempt to order human experience according to an abstract moral law was one of the fundamental problems of the society in which he lived.
Having discussed Blake’s criticism of abstract moral values in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ I will now briefly analyse how he attempts to arouse deep suspicions about moral precepts in ‘Holy Thursday’ in his Songs of Innocence. ‘Holy Thursday’ starts with an at once magnificent and touching scene of a charity-children’s annual procession to St Paul’s for a service of thanksgiving (Glen 121):
‘Upon a holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
‘The children walking two & two in grey & blue & green (1-2)
The poem is however different than ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ with respect to the speaker himself being not altogether innocent. The scene is observed by the speaker with a certain awareness of its significance: the children are labelled as ‘innocent’ in contrast with the elders who exploit the young for their own benefit. However, unlike what the eighteenth-century reader might have expected, the speaker does not reveal a moralising attitude towards the children but rather revels in the wonderful, lively and colourful sight (Glen 121). The observer transforms the most disturbing elements of the situation such as the regimented marching of the children into a vision of beauty and harmony. He emphasises the exquisiteness of the children as the “flowers of London town / Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own”. Moreover, like ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ this poem ends with a ‘moral’:
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door. (12)
In comparison with what has come before in the poem, this last line, with its abstract moral term ‘pity,’ falls flat. By stating this last moral precept in a context of a beautiful and harmonious vision characterised by ambiguity, Blake awakens the same uneasiness about such ‘moral precepts’ as he does in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. He seems to contrast deliberately the liveliness of an unmoralising vision with the distanced and potentially mystifying abstraction of the expected attempt to order experience according to a generalized moral code.
The last poem I will examine is ‘London’, one of the more memorable poems of Blake’s Songs of Experience. Herein Blake depicts the human degradation and exploitation of eighteenth-century London society mainly due to self-imposed moral constrictions. The “steady slowness and solemnity” with which the lonely wanderer relates the anguish of the people he encounters not only suggestively heightens the seriousness of the poem, but also indicates how heavily such scenes of misery have impacted his consciousness (Leader 196):
I wander thro’ each charter’d street.
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe. (1-4)
By the repetition of the key words ‘charter’d’ and ‘mark’ in this first stanza the ‘charter’d’ streets and river Thames and the ‘marked’ facial expressions are thus both seen as the results of the same coercive imposition of order of man-made constrictions which will become more apparent later in the poem (Thompson 176; Gillham 9). This categorization is similar to the political system of chartering that reduces human realities to abstract rights and obligations. Due to such political strategies that are disconnected from concrete human existence, the very attempt to interpret experience is undercut (Glen 211). These visual images are followed in the second stanza by the more general agonizing lament of “every Man / every Infants cry of fear” which suffering under the self-imposed restrictions of society (Gillham 10):
In every voice; in every ban.
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear (7-8)
The harsh monotony of ‘every’ in this second stanza takes the form of an eerie chant which gives expression to the repressiveness of an exploitative society. The almost neurotic rhythm complements the entrapment implicit in Blake’s terminology of ‘mind-forg’d manacles’. This word has a twofold significance in that ‘manacles’ could be seen as handcuffs which can be used to bind the hands and ‘forg’d’ is reminiscent of the blacksmith’s shop as well as fraudulent fabrication. Blake attempts to reveal how humanity has built an extravagant prison by utilising our mind as “an iron law of our condition” (Gillham 10). The ‘manacles’ could be seen as a sort of mental handcuffs not only for the mind, but also created by the mind. It seems as if Blake intentionally gives no hint as to whose mind is responsible for this imprisonment since he exposes the fact that in the society he portrays nobody can be absolved of moral responsibility (Glen 213). Consequently, it is impossible to disengage oneself from moral judgement of this society without seeing oneself as being responsible for the conditions which make it possible in the first place.
Finally, while in the first two stanzas the social interconnections were obscured by the speaker’s generic depictions of them, the last stanzas provide very specific images in which the disharmonious human relations are dramatically portrayed (Thompson 187):
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls.
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls (9-12)
These few lines criticise the important organizations of Blake’s day, the Church and the State, by depicting horrific images of social and political oppression. While the Church propagated several strict moral precepts, it also condoned the social injustice that the innocent sweepers suffer. A similar expression of indignation is found in the image of the pitiful death of a young soldier having no other recourse but to fight for the monarchy. There is a similarity between these scenario’s in that “just as the Soldier’s sigh stains with blood the walls of the pernicious institution that conscripts him, so does the Sweeper’s voiced torment resound upon his oppressor, blackening it in kind” (Lambert 141-142). The essential mode of relationship within this city, between its institutions and its people, is thus one of dominance, oppression and moral hypocrisy.
In conclusion, the poems ‘Holy Thursday’, ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ and ‘London’ that have been briefly analyzed in this essay all disclose Blake’s profound suspicion of a readers’ confidence in moral judgement. This can be seen in that the self-reflexiveness of ‘London’ has its counterpart in the double-edged maxims of the ‘Holy Thursday’ and ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. In these poems, Blake does not explicitly give voice to protest, but he implicates the reader directly, and refuses to allow him or her any uncontaminated moral perspective such as conventional ‘protest’ verse would assume. He offers a dramatisation of the conflict between actual social experience and ‘official’ justifying morality. Rather than merely expressing indignant social protest, the poems express something more immediately disquieting, namely a sense not only of the uncertainty of any moral judgment within the society that has been portrayed, but also of its active implication in that which it seeks to condemn. Blake seems to imply that such moralising by abstracting from the actuality of experience is often dehumanising as it sets up an artificial construct: an absolute moral law.
As a result, this moral law can all too easily be used to justify the status quo of an oppressive society and exploit the socially powerless. Paradoxically, Blake seems to be criticising the official moral absolutes of his contemporary society by implicitly utilising moral indictments himself. It thus seems that Blake is ultimately not criticising morality as such, but rather the misuse of abstract moral reasoning to justify and maintain a society burdened by self-restrictive mental handcuffs which imprison the lively concrete existence of its members to their social detriment.
Blake and Keat’s Approaches Compared
William Blake was known for tailoring his romantic poetry specifically for children, particularly in ‘Songs of Innocence’, where the themes of nature and religion were utilised to allow Blake to directly educate his intended younger audience about faith, the beauty of the natural world, and the injustice of the industrial revolution in the 18th century. It is certain that Blake’s poetry was intended to teach. However, Keats, who wrote the poem ‘The Human Seasons’ only two decades after Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’, delivers far less of a ‘taught’ message and more of a general observation on the life of man, due to his more casual writing style, his younger and more innocent age, and his extremely short life span. These factors contribute to the possible interpretation that, as MacLeish states in ‘Ars Poetica’, “A poem should not mean, but be.” Although Keats does not mean to teach, readers may often be able to discover and learn from his poetry.
In ‘The Human Seasons’, Keats creates an extended metaphor for the progression of the four seasons as man’s life: youth in spring, adulthood in summer, old age in autumn and death in winter. The reader is able to learn from the final rhyming couplet of the poem, as Keats relates Winter to man’s death. The words “mortal nature” are easily interpreted as the inevitable death of nature in harsher winter months as trees shed their leaves and become bare, but can also be seen as the mortality of man, allowing the reader to learn that death is inescapable. This reading is particularly poignant to Keats’ contemporary readers, as his own early death due to tuberculosis emphasized this message, even without any explicit teaching. Somewhat similarly, Blake allows his readers to learn from his poetry in ‘Holy Thursday’. Blake describes a “land of poverty” where it is “eternal winter”. When related to the inevitable morbidity in Keats’ winter, the “eternal” nature of Blake’s winter becomes much darker and can be interpreted as a never-ending world of death, gaining even more horror when you add the context of Blake writing for children. The imagery of this hopeless land allows the reader to learn of the disadvantages imposed on children during the industrial revolution and the sometimes deadly struggles they endured. Likewise, in ‘Nurse’s Song’, the line “Spring and your day are wasted in play” continues the use of seasons as a metaphor for life, with the reader learning from “wasted”, as it suggests that one shouldn’t spend all of one’s youth being childish and should instead gain the maturity which will be important later in life; this is a direct message from Blake to his young readers.
Still, Keats’ ‘The Human Seasons’ gives an argument against the idea that poems are intended to teach. In the winter section of the poem, we see the importance of learning from poetry, rather than being taught. In the spring section of the poem, the subject “takes in all beauty”, as Keats aims to promote and provoke a sense of discovery in the reader, rather than leading the reader to an easy conclusion. Furthermore, in the summer section “Spring’s honied cud of youthful thought” allows the subject of the poem to learn from the mistakes of his “lusty” youth, as “honied cud” could be interpreted as the rose-tinted ideals of adolescence before entering into the harsh world of adulthood, and “lusty” has both excitable and sexual connotations. Keats’ expertise in extended metaphor make it clear that he prefers his readers to come to their own conclusions after reading the poem, combining elements of discovery and learning rather than being given the deeper meaning on a plate, in the manner of Blake’s more explicit writing. After all, Blake’s poetry offers more of a ‘teaching’ approach. The cynical ‘London’ from ‘Songs of Experience’ presents a more socially weathered Blake: due to his dissatisfaction with the corruption of the “blackening Church” and English politics, he describes the “mind-forged manacles” by which men are bound to the regime in London. Whilst “mind-forged” indicates that people are confined by their own interpretations, forces existing only in the mind, the use of “manacles” — very heavy, strong and physically imposing — creates a sense of this oppression in the real world, linking back to Blake’s preference for the explicit. He is unafraid to speak out on the corruption of society and does so in order to teach and educate his readers, who were often too uninformed to be literate in these issues. Yet Blake gives such issues a voice.
Overall, there is a distinct contrast between the two poets’ approaches on writing poetry specifically to teach their readers. Keats’ poetry observes and his readers passively learn, Blake’s poetry explores and his readers are actively taught.
The Story of a Chimneysweeper
The poem “The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake is set around a dark background of child labor. In the 18th and 19th centuries, boys of four and five were sold because of their small physical size to work as chimney sweepers. In this poem, one of the characters by the name of Tom Dacre has a dream where an angel rescues the boys from coffins and brings them with him to heaven. The story is told by one of the young chimney sweepers whose name remains untold. To help his readers to understand this poem, and to add an even more dramatic effect, Blake writes the poem in first person. The reason behind the first person narration is actually simple. Blake wants to help his readers to feel as if they are the one telling the story. By doing this, the reader can envision what it was like to be the young chimneysweeper who is looking over at his fellow worker, Tom.
Within the first two lines of the poem, readers get a background of the events that will be portrayed in the poem. The narrator’s mother had passed away when he was very young. Stereotypically, in society, the mother has always been the more caring of the two parents. Had the narrator had a mother, the story may have turned out differently. In the second and third lines of the poem, Blake writes, “And my father sold me while yet my tongue could scarcely cry ‘weep! weep! weep!” (Blake 2). The fact that the father had sold the young boy tells us that the boy comes from a poor family. Otherwise, there would be no reason for the father to sell the boy. Also, the boy is not old enough to voice his own opinion or even talk, meaning that his father already determined his fate. The boy was treated as property rather than as a human being. In the last line of the first stanza, Blake writes, “So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.” (Blake 4) Other than the title, this line is the first line where Blake tells us why the boy had been sold, and what the rest of the poem will be about. The fact that he includes that the boy will be sleeping in soot, really displays how poor the conditions are when being a chimneysweeper.
In the second stanza, the readers are introduced to a new character, named Tom Dacre. Tom is also a young boy, about the same age as the narrator, who also works as a chimneysweeper. The reader only gets one physical feature of Tom described to them: “There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried in his head, that curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved” (Blake 5). From this one can gather that as a young boy chimney sweeping, they get their head shaved. Since all the boys get their heads shaven, it is almost like giving them a uniform and taking away their identity. After this, the unnamed narrator offers Tom words of reassurance saying that the soot from the chimney couldn’t ruin what wasn’t there. This was important because as of this point in the poem, everything that had happened had a dark and depressing tone.
In the next stanza, Tom Dacre has a nightmare. At first, Tom was quietly sleeping in his bed, when suddenly he has a nightmare. The fact that Tom was quiet at first means that what the narrator said may have helped calm him down. The reader might also assume that Tom may have had anxiety when going to sleep thinking about his life as a chimneysweeper. The dream itself consisted of thousands of chimney sweepers being locked up in coffins of black. Blake decides to name off four of the chimney sweepers, however, all with names that are one syllable and have a maximum of four letters. One of the reasons that Blake may have done this is to continue to make this subject personal. Whenever anyone gives something a name, that object now holds a greater meaning to that person. In other words, now that there are four named children in Tom’s dream, Blake is able to make the dream seem even darker.
Blake changes the tone in the next line. “And by came an angel who had a bright key, and he opened the coffins and set them all free;” (Blake 13). There was a major contrast in this line from the last. Angels are usually seen wearing all white. This one, in particular, was carrying a bright key, which unlocked all of the dark coffins. Blake added this adjective to say that the children were now free from their slave-like jobs. “Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run, and wash in a river, and shine in the sun.” (Blake 15). Blake changes this nightmare over to a dream in this stanza. Now Tom Dacre is dreaming of what kids his age should be doing instead of cleaning out people’s chimneys. Blake also includes that Tom dreams how the boys will be washing in the river. He includes this because it is as if Tom feels that once he is free from sweeping, he will be clean. Secondly, Blake includes the boys shining in the sun, which symbolizes brightness and warmth. One can infer that working in a chimney would be the exact opposite of that.
The fifth stanza is still a continuation of the dream. “Then naked and white, all their bags left behind, they rise upon clouds and sport in the wind” (Blake 17). Being that the boys are naked symbolizes freedom. It shows that they are free of all of their tools and gear that are needed to chimney sweep. It was also crucial that the skin tone of the boys was white. White is the color of purity and is the opposite of the soot color inside the chimneys.
In the last part of the dream, the angel tells Tom that if he is a good boy, he will end up having god as a father and never wanting joy. The angel is telling Tom what he needs to do in order to be like the other boys in his dream. This is important now Tom will follow all of the directions given to him by the people who run the chimney sweeping business. The angel tells Tom that he will end up with God as a father. A reader can assume that Tom’s father was probably the same as that of the narrator. When Tom eventually does go up to heaven with God, he will never want joy because he will have everything that he needs, unlike he did when he was with his real parents.
In the sixth and final stanza of the poem, the dream ends, and the readers can see a change in Tom Dacre’s outlook on life, where he used to be negative, and now he is positive. “And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark, and got without bags and our brushes to work. Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm; so if all do their duty they need not fear harm.” (Blake 21). This poem is full of light, and dark contrasts throughout and this last stanza is no different. The first line is how Tom arose from his sleep where an angel was talking to him, into the cold dark morning to set out to work. It was crucial to include those adjectives because they brought back the reality that was chimney sweeping. There was also a contrast in the sense that he was dreaming of naked children running around, and now he has to awake and grab all of his gear to get to work. The children were free, and now he has physical locks on him with all of his gear. Even though the morning was cold, Tom seemed to be happy and warm. The reader can infer that this is because of what the angel had told Tom. He is doing all of his duties, so he need not fear harm.
Good and Bad in “The Little Black Boy”
William Blake’s collection of poems, Songs of Innocence, highlights both the positive and negative aspects of the trait of innocence. Many of the poems within the collection feature speakers who find comfort in religious teachings and experiences despite the lives of suffering and turmoil that they are forced to endure. One such poem, “The Little Black Boy,” features a young male speaker of African descent who learns about the system of racial classification from his mother. Many argue that the poem seems far removed from the rest of the Songs of Innocence due to its dealing with a mature subject—racism. Though “The Little Black Boy” wrestles with the heavy topic of racism, it earns its place in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence through its narrative structure and the speaker’s exhibition of traits that signify innocence—hopefulness, naivety, and ignorance.
The poem greatly utilizes its narrative structure to convey innocence. This fact is most evident through the poem’s speaker. No image conveys innocence more clearly than that of a young child who lacks knowledge and experience. He describes the matronly love shown to him by his mother stating, “And, sitting down before the heat of day, / She took me on her lap and kissed me” (Blake 6-7). This image shared by the speaker displays his young age through the close, nurturing relationship he shares with his mother. This relationship signals the speaker’s young age and continued dependence on his mother. He also recalls being “taught…underneath a tree” (Blake 5). The framing of a lesson taught by the child’s mother furthers the image of innocence through the child’s unquestioning faith in his mother’s knowledge. This image relates to other poems throughout the collection that portray a similar relationship between believers and the Christian God. Lastly the speaker’s ability to reach a concrete, although problematic, conclusion by the poem’s end points to a lack of experience. The speaker has yet to reach an age where he can conceptualize the possibility of uncertainty. Overall the poem’s narrative structure plays a major role in rationalizing the poem’s placement in this particular collection.
In addition to the poem’s narrative structure, the themes present throughout the text demonstrate the innocence that the poem portrays. For instance, the youthful speaker’s sense of hopefulness throughout the poem showcases his inexperience. In an effort to explain race and its cultural significance to her son and to provide him with a sense of peace while enduring the injustice that he will definitely face throughout his life as a racial other, his mother tells him of a God who “gives his light, and gives his heat away” so that the “flowers and trees and beasts and men receive / Comfort in morning joy in the noonday” (9-12). This explanation allows for the innocent young boy to feel a sense of comfort in knowing that someone cares for him while growing up in an environment that devalues racial minorities. Additionally, his mother explains that “we are put on earth a little space” (13). This statement allows the speaker to remain hopeful by allowing him to believe that his suffering on earth will be short lived and that he will have an eternal life in heaven without the hardships that he endures due to his race on earth. Later in the poem, the speaker refers to racial identity as a cloud (16). He resolves to learn “the heat to bear” in hopes that in the future “the cloud will vanish” (17-18). In other words, his innocence allows him to remain hopeful that someday he will able to live a life free from the constraints placed upon him due to his race. This sense of hopefulness provides the speaker with a sense of comfort and allows him to remain within the realm of innocence.
Along with the speaker’s hopefulness, his naivety further allows him to be seen as innocent. In the poem, the speaker reaches an understanding about his racial category and the influence it has on his life stating: “And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face / Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.” (15-16). These lines highlight the speaker’s naivety in regards to the racial system by allowing him to believe that it is a simple, insignificant fact of life. He fails to see the major impact that race plays in his life. Furthermore, the speaker makes plans for his afterlife: I’ll shade him [the English child] from the heat till he can bear, To lean in joy upon our fathers knee. And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair, And be like him and he will then love me. (25-28) The little boy’s plan to serve the English child exemplifies his naivety in regards to racial relations. The speaker plans to remain subservient and inferior to his white counterpart even in the space where he stands to gain his freedom from this relationship. Instead of desiring his own personal autonomy and freedom, he longs for the love and approval of the English child. This innocent naivety could prove to be dangerous for the little black boy by causing him to accept his plight as a racial other and minimizing his will to question the arbitrary oppression bestowed upon him due to his racial identity.
The speaker’s naivety towards the implications of his race directly relates to poem’s portrayal of the speaker’s innocence through his ignorance to the injustice of the racial categorization. One of the first illustrations of the child’s ignorance occurs as the second stanza begins with an image of the speaker’s mother teaching him beneath the shade of a tree (5). This image illustrates the fact that the speaker is still in the process of learning about life. He remains ignorant of the many harsh realities of life as a racial other due to the fact that he has not come of age and gained the experience necessary to understand these issues. By the poem’s end, the speaker makes plans involving the English child to “shade him from the heat till he can bear” and “stand and stroke his silver hair” (25, 27). Even in the place where he reaches his freedom he plans to remain in a subservient role. He remains ignorant to the injustice of his arbitrary position of servitude. As in the case of his naivety, his ignorance will possibly eliminate any agency to seek equality within his earthly life.
While many question the placement of “The Little Black Boy” within Songs of Innocence, the poem showcases many of the traits of innocence that stand out throughout the collection. Through its youthful speaker’s unquestioning acceptance of his mother’s teachings the poem narrates the speaker’s hopefulness, naivety, and ignorance in regards to his likely bleak future as a person of African descent in the sixteenth century Western world. Although his mother’s well-intentioned lesson eases his worries and provides him with an incentive to endure his life within an oppressive environment, it will not free him for the implications of his racial identity. Despite the fact that the poem’s main topic—racism—is part of the world of experience, its understanding and rationalization through the mind of a youthful speaker allows it to fit well within Blake’s Songs of Innocence.
A Study of Blake’s “Introduction” to Innocence and Experience
William Blake’s collection of illuminated poems in Songs of Innocence and of Experience depict, as the title page explains, “the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul” (Blake 1). Although Songs of Innocence, written in 1789, was crafted five years prior to Songs of Experience both collections read as stand alone works of engraving art and poetry; however, the second work was created to accompany the first. The companion poems in Songs of Innocence and of Experience establish a distance between the dissimilar states of pure innocence and world-worn experience. Blake’s illuminated poems, “Introduction” to both Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, feature a speaker whose inspirations, themes and tones highlight the dichotomy between the soul’s states of both innocence and experience. Blake’s use of trochaic tetrameter in his “Introduction” to Songs of Innocence produces a sing-song rhythm akin to children’s songs lending the poem a tone of childlike innocence. The Piper, Blake’s speaker, begins the poem “Piping down the valleys wild” (1), a pastoral scene revealing the speaker as one unified with the natural world. The “valleys wild” and “songs of pleasant glee” (1-2), are lawless and unbounded by social systems and structures, placing the piper within the state of innocence described by S. Foster Damon as “free, as it needs no laws. It is happy, since it is unsophisticated. It enjoys the most spontaneous communion with nature, readily perceiving the divine in all things” (31). From this standpoint of pastoral innocence the Piper receives inspiration. A laughing child on a cloud, an otherworldly symbol of innocent joy, asks the speaker to “Pipe a song about a Lamb” (5). The lamb represents innocence, but also the ‘Lamb of God,’ Jesus Christ. Blake’s speaker pipes “with merry chear” (6), and plays the song once again for the child who reacts to the speaker’s efforts with tears of joy (8). The tears elicited from the ethereal child at the Piper’s second recitation represent a reaction of untainted innocence to the song of Christ’s mercy. Implicit in the Piper’s song about the Lamb—the redemption of mankind through Christ—is the notion of original sin and the loss of innocence. The child’s joyful tears, in once sense, oppose the weeping in “Introduction” in Songs of Experience, but also forecast the mourning for innocence lost and experience gained. Serving as muse, the child on the cloud urges the speaker to “write / In a book that all may read” (13-14), the happy songs song on behalf of and from the standpoint of unsullied innocence. The “hollow reed” and “rural pen” (16-17), referenced by the Piper serve as pastoral symbols for the Blake’s engraving tool—the burin—used in crafting the plates from which Songs of Innocence and of Experience were first printed. Watercolors were used by Blake to paint his prints, thus the Piper “stain’d the water clear,” while transcribing his “happy songs / Every child may joy to hear” (18-20). The innocence presented by Blake in his vision of the child in unspoiled nature translates through the artist’s tools and onto the page, creating a group of poems that are written from the perspective of an innocent soul. “Introduction” in Songs of Experience establishes a much different tone. While “Introduction” to Songs of Innocence shows the Piper finding inspiration for his poems from an angelic child’s meek requests for a song, the “Introduction” in Songs of Experience begins with the speaker demanding, “Hear the voice of the Bard! / Who Present, Past & Future sees” (1-2). Unlike the state of innocence in which present joys remains a singular concern, the Bard sees past events, present reactions and possible futures. The Bard’s voice differs from the descriptive tones of the Piper and takes on an imperative quality signifying the desire to find meaning and create change within the chaos of experience. Instead of composing a song about a lamb, the Bard has actually “heard / The Holy Word / That walk’d among the ancient trees” (3-5), a direct reference to God seeking Adam and Eve after they have committed the original sin. Northrop Frye indicates that “the ‘Bard’ thus finds himself in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, who derive their inspiration from Christ as Word of God” (60). Inspired by the word of God and “weeping in the evening dew” (11), the Bard’s lamenting over mankind’s fall contrasts with the child’s innocent cries of joy at the song about Christ. “Calling the lapsed Soul” (10), the Bard hopes to inspire all human souls to overcome their fallen state and wield the power of imagination allowing man to “controll / The starry pole, / And fallen, fallen light renew” (12-14). Where Blake celebrates his vision of innocence in Songs of Innocence’s “Introduction,” the Bard of experience mourns mankind’s first move away from innocence into the abyss of fragmentation that separates humanity from God and man from man. Inspired by the voice of God, the Bard calls to earth: Arise from out the dewy grass; Night is worn, And the morn Rises from the slumberous mass. (12-15) The “slumberous mass” referred to by the Bard constitutes both earth and mankind wrapped in the endless chaos of fragmentation and separation from God. The “Night” has lasted since the Old Testament God cursed mankind and made division of earth from God and will persist until the Bard’s orders for the souls of mankind rise from their material prisons with the dawning of a new post-apocalyptic millennial era—the “morn” (13-14). Frye concludes that the “‘fallen light,’ [. . .] is the alternating light and darkness of the world we know; the unfallen light would be the eternal light of the City of God”; thus, “the prophet sees in every dawn the image of a resurrection that will lift the world into another state of being altogether” (63). The Bard begs both the earth and man to rise from their fallen fragmented forms and gain, through the awakening of imagination, a higher state of tested innocence. The “lapsed soul” (6), that remains ensconced in the state of experience binds itself within the earthly material realm circumscribed by “the starry floor” and “watry shore” (18-19). These boundaries inhibit man’s ability to transcend the material realm of experience and reunite the fragmented segments of human experience with “the break of day” (20), ending the cycle of light and dark and beginning the new millennial era in which God and all men are once again joined together through love and understanding. Songs of Innocence and of Experience presents poems in the form of illuminated plates, adding an artistic depth to the texts themselves through contributions made by the decorations to the theme of the poems. “Introduction” in Songs of Innocence features text decorated on either side by images “derived from a mediaeval manuscript illustrating the Tree of Jesse” (Keynes 132-3), showing the genealogical descent of Christ from David, the son of Jesse. Blake’s song in the initial version of “Introduction” concerns Jesus, making the lineage of Christ a fitting backdrop for the poem. Songs of Experience presents the text of its “Introduction” above a reposing figure, most likely female, symbolizing both earth and the soul. Earth lies with her back to the reader and looks toward the right side of the text with an aura surrounding her head. The figure of earth operates as an inverse to Jesse who faces the audience and looks from right to left in The Tree of Jesse (Unknown). In the engraving as in the poem, earth appears as an opposite to the image of Jesse who represents the biological path to Christ and the salvation of mankind. Imagination, mankind’s only hope of redemption from material bonds, remains present in the glow emanating from earth’s head (Blake 24, 76). Blake’s two versions of “Introduction” written from the perspectives of innocence and experience function on much the same level as Milton’s companion poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. Mirth and melancholy both present themselves throughout the experience of human life as experience inevitably grows from innocence. Blake’s two poems feature tones that reflect the condition of the speaker’s soul, innocence exhibiting laughter and tears of joy and experience demanding attention to its complaints. Thematically the poems diverge in focus: the first “Introduction” celebrates the natural ability to imagine and live unbounded in the pastoral simplicity of innocence versus the second “Introduction” that offers reproach for the material world of experience. While the world of innocence relies on love and joy in the present those in the experienced realm must suffer the chaos and separation from the human form divine—God. Although interpretation of Blake’s poetry remains a challenge, the portraits of innocence and experience given to readers of Blake’s two versions of “Introduction” display divergent characteristics of two conditions of the soul, opening the path for Blake to fully explore the dichotomy throughout Songs of Innocence and of Experience.Works CitedBlake, William. “Introduction.” Songs of Innocence. 1789. Introd. and Comment. Sir Geoffrey Keynes. New York: Oxford UP, 1967. 23-4.—. “Introduction.” Songs of Experience. 1794. Introd. and Comment. Sir Geoffrey Keynes. New York: Oxford UP, 1967. 75-6.Damon, S. Foster. “The Initial Eden.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. Morton D. Paley. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969. 30-5.Frye, Northrop. “Blake’s Introduction to Experience.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. Morton D. Paley. New Jersey: Prentice- Hall, Inc., 1969. 58-67.Unknown. The Tree of Jesse. 1240-1250. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles=2E 1 March 2005
Satire and Expression in Blake’s Songs
Blake was undoubtedly a fierce critic of many aspects of 18th century society, and through his poetry, called on people to free themselves from the ‘mind-forged manacles’ which religious dominance and social conventions had placed upon them. His strong feelings of outrage at the complacency of the individual, as well as his railing against the authority of institutions like the monarchy and the church, make for some of Blake’s most interesting and compelling poetry. However, whilst satire forms a large element of many of Blake’s poems, it is by no means the full measure of his comment on society and human nature – whilst he uses irony where appropriate, the Songs are not primarily a satire but an expression of ‘two contrary states of the human soul’.In Songs of Innocence especially, Blake’s use of satire is subtle – he states in his Introduction that he has written his ‘happy songs, Every child may joy to hear’ and in this context, a blatantly satirical approach would have been inappropriate. Nevertheless, Blake attempts to tackle the racial injustices in the 18th century in ‘The Little Black Boy’ through satire. At the time of its writing, slavery had another 20 years before it would finally be outlawed, and therefore Blake’s abolitionist stance would have been very much in the minority. We can see the prevalent viewpoints in the first verse, in which the black boy himself bemoans the colour of his skin, saying’White as an angel is the English child;But I am black as if bereaved of light.’These two lines highlight very effectively the way in which black people were viewed in the 18th century; Blake’s use of language in ‘bereaved of light’ suggests that black people were Godless, in comparison with the white child, who is angelic merely because he is of English, and therefore Christian birth. Whilst, as a modern audience, we would immediately take this assumption as ironic, in the 18th century, poems extolling exactly this viewpoint were numerous, and a contemporary audience may well have merely accepted this boy’s reaction to his own skin colour as normal and acceptable, making the conclusion of the poem, in which these assumptions are firmly rejected, even more striking.Blake’s criticism of racial prejudices becomes more obvious when the mother figure, clearly portrayed positively when she ‘took [the boy] on her lap and kissd [him]’ corrects her son. She displays not only knowledge, but an appropriate reverence and appreciation of God, and her explanation of ‘these black bodies’ as being ‘a cloud’ which protects us until ‘our souls have learned the heat to bear’ makes an ironic contrast with their description in the first stanza. Further, the description of them as a ‘shady grove’ implies that they are more accomplished in bearing the heat of God’s love than their white, English counterparts. When the focus returns to the little black boy in the last verse, Blake’s satire comes to the fore, with the image of the black boy resolving to ‘stand and stroke [the English boy’s] silver hair’, showing true Christian compassion, and paralleling Christ in his position by God. There is certainly unmistakable irony in the fact that it is now the black boy who has the ability to give freedom, of a more powerful, spiritual kind, to the white child, and a striking contrast to the situation at the time. However, there may also be another edge of irony in the last verse. The last line, where the black boy says ‘I’ll be like him, and he will then love me,’ ends almost sadly – although there is hope, there is also the implication that at the moment, the white boy does not love him, and we are led to wonder whether this innocent assumption is too simplistic, and perhaps merely naivety on the part of the little black boy. This would tie in well with [tape guy] who described many of the Songs of Innocence as ‘an oblique commentary on a world that is terrible in it’s imperfections and cruelty’, and this poignant suggestion that the boy’s innocence may be misguided, and taken advantage of by the world of experience, emphasises this.The Chimney Sweeper in Songs of Innocence is another example of Blake giving a voice to those who were persecuted in 18th century society. Superficially, this poem would seem to be encouraging children to accept their lots in life – ‘little Tom Dacre’ submits to having his ‘head, that curled like a lamb’s back’ shaved, and consequently, was that night freed by an ‘angel’, telling him ‘if he’d be a good boy, He’d have God for his father and never want joy’. This message, that ‘if all do their duty, they need not fear harm’ does not seem out of place in a child’s poem, as this anthology claimed to be – the most popular books of children’s verse at that time were indeed ones with such religious overtones.However, if we are to read this poem only in this light, it would seem surprising that Blake encourages a view which was so synonymous with the church’s teachings. Therefore, it seems likely that there are in fact overtones of irony in this poem. The reference to the lamb clearly refers to the symbol of Christ, which is used throughout the Songs, and the image of the lamb being shaven suggests sacrifice – Blake perhaps makes the point here that these boys, like Christ, are being persecuted despite their goodness and innocence. Tom’s dream, whilst seemingly beautiful, also places restraints upon the boys – the voice of the angel is patronising, telling Tom to ‘be a good boy’ and accept his duty, and we are reminded of the figure of Urizen from Blake’s mythology – the ‘selfish father of men’ who ties humans to ‘duty’ and imposes rules and restrictions upon them. The effect of all this is to make us wonder at the sense of accepting this philosophy; the idea that ‘if all do their duty, they need not fear harm’ seems naive, and the description of Tom as ‘happy and warm’ provides an ironic contrast with the ‘dark’ and ‘cold’ of the morning; suggesting he is completely oblivious to the reality of his situation. Here, Blake uses satire to criticise the idea of ‘unorganised innocence’ – effectively drawing our attention to the problems in ignoring the world of experience rather than working within the two contraries.The Church’s attitudes to poverty are also dealt with in the Songs of Innocence’s version of Holy Thursday. The basis for the title was the annual service in which children from the charity schools in London gave thanks to their benefactors. Again, Blake presents us with a poem which can be taken either as a simple innocent perspective, or an ironic attack on the religious establishment. Much of his language is deliberately ambiguous – the children are described as ‘multitudes of lambs’, and this emphasises both their innocence, and the implication that they are being sacrificed by the ‘grey headed beadles.’ Similarly, the last line, ‘Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door’ can be read in two ways; we are unsure of whether these angels are the beadles, in which case the poem is a warning to the children to be grateful for the charity they are being shown, or whether the angels are the children themselves – indeed, it is their song which ‘they raise to Heaven’. If this were so, then the tone of the poem is deeply satirical – he is implying that ‘the agd men,’ who he has placed ‘beneath’ the children perhaps not only physically but morally, should ‘cherish pity’ and be grateful for having the opportunity to help the children, and perhaps that they are unaware of the children’s ‘radiance’. The description of the beadles as ‘wise guardians of the poor’ also seems bitterly ironic; Blake was greatly opposed to the regimentation of children, and the rows of ‘children walking two and two in red and blue and green’ show both their oppression and their loss of individuality. Blake’s use of satire in this poem is particularly effective; it is not an explicitly satirical attack on the church, but a simple poem with a singsong rhythm and vivid imagery, which makes the overall effect much more poignant – the ambiguity challenges the reader’s perceptions of religion in a way which an outpouring of ironic commentary would not, and it is this which makes the poem particularly striking.Blake continues to question the Church’s attitudes towards children in The Little Vagabond. The child speaker is described as a ‘vagabond’ for his blasphemous views, yet as we read the poem, we are left with the distinct impression that there is a good deal of truth in his honest and innocently expressed ideas. There is a great deal of irony in the fact that the child feels it is the alehouse which is ‘healthy and pleasant and warm’, and gives him ‘a pleasant fire our souls to regale’, when this is clearly the effect religion should have. Similarly, his description of ‘modest dame Lurch’, who would seem a model of Christian virtue because she ‘is always at church’, is deeply satirical, as she and her ‘bandy children’ experience only suffering as a result, highlighting the hypocrisy Blake saw within the Church’s teachings. The satire reaches a head in the final verse, which is also the most controversial. Blake expresses the view that, were the Church more like the alehouse, God would be ‘like a father rejoicing to see His children as pleasant and happy as he,’ – a sharp contrast to the Church’s own condemnation of alehouses as places of sin. The final image, of God having ‘no more quarrel with the Devil’ and reconciling with him, is one which is in direct opposition to the teachings of the Church, in that God and the Devil are viewed as polar opposites, impossible to reconcile, and yet the ‘vagabond’s idea that God will ‘kiss [the Devil] and give him both drink and apparel’ is clearly adopted from Christian teaching, and is more than a little reminiscent of the Prodigal Son. In this way, Blake successfully uses satire to set the Church’s teachings against those of Jesus, emphasising clearly his own views on the hypocrisy and the incongruity in religion in the 18th century.Blake also satirises the state of human relationships in his society. My Pretty Rose Tree attempts to challenge the conventional (and again, religious) attitudes to marriage, and in particular to commitment. The poem describes how ‘such a flower as May never bore’ was offered to the narrator, symbolising the temptation of another woman, and the language clearly suggests she was young, beautiful, and that this is an opportunity which might never come again – the reference to seasons does make us aware of the passing of time. Rejecting her in favour of his partner, ‘a pretty rose tree’, so that he can ‘tend her by day and by night’, he returns to find ‘my rose turned away with jealousy’ despite the fact that he had turned down the other woman. It is bitterly ironic that despite the narrator’s attempts to do what society dictates is best for his relationship, it emerges that ‘thorns were my only delight’ – it brings only suffering to both him and his partner. Here, Blake has used satire to criticise the marriage commitment – he implies through this poem that the narrator was mistaken when he ‘passed the sweet flower o’er’, and a monogamous commitment is no guarantee of trust between a couple, as the partners in this poem show. As a short, regularly structured poem with a strong rhythm, it does have a proverbial element, and it would seem that Blake is attempting to ‘teach a lesson’ to society. Although his idea is controversial to say the least, the picture of suspicion and misery in this poem make a compelling argument.As we can see, Blake used satire to convey his opinions and criticisms about religion, racial prejudice, human relationships and attitudes to children. In effect, it would seem that irony, therefore, plays an important part in his poetry. However, it would be inaccurate to view certainly the Songs of Innocence, and even the Songs of Experience, as merely satirical views of society. The purpose of ‘Innocence’ is to set up an ideal to which Blake hoped mankind could aspire; it was the result of numerous visions, and the book, whilst remaining an entertaining anthology of children’s verse, is also a very specific and vivid picture of Blake’s philosophy, and perhaps his utopia. This type of work, therefore, is not really appropriate for an extensive use of satire. Songs of Experience do, as we would expect, use irony more freely, as Blake is here attempting to set up a contrast between the world as it is, and the world as it should be, but even here its use is still limited. Poems such as ‘A Poison Tree’, whilst still drawing our attention to fundamental problems in human relationships, is not so much satirical as painfully recognisable. It is this which provides the main impetus for Blake’s work – foremost, Songs of Innocence and Experience are about showing what he considered the realities of the ‘two contrary states of the human soul’, and Blake’s selective use of satire certainly helps him to achieve this.
Blake’s vision of innocence as a form of protest
Despite Blake’s asserted protest in his dual collection, ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’, the role of protest in his vision of innocence, itself, is more debatable. Arguably, Blake’s protest is constructed only through the contrasts that arise between ‘Songs of Innocence’ and ‘Songs of Experience’; therefore, the vision of innocence does not itself act as a protest. However, Blake’s emphasis on the naturalness of physical pleasure subverts conventional doctrines and establishes an implicit protest against his society. Thus, although Blake’s attack may be more effective and multifaceted when placed alongside ‘Songs of Experience’, his vision of innocence is arguably still itself a protest.
Blake foregrounds the contrasting perceptions of innocence and experience and, arguably, through this, forms his protests against both a single vision and the repressive teachings of the Church. Possibly, without the contrary vision of experience, Blake’s vision of innocence cannot be considered, itself, to be a protest. Indeed, for example, it is the contrast between the vision of innocence in ‘the Echoing Green’ and that of experience, in ‘the Garden of Love’, that reveals Blake’s attack on the Church. In ‘the Echoing Green’, the reader is introduced to a thriving natural setting, “the skylark and thrush” and “Old John sitting under the oak”, and the return to innocence is signaled through Blake’s joyful language, “cheerful”, “laugh”, “our play”. However, in ‘the Garden of Love’, which is portrayed as an experienced reflection of ‘the Echoing Green’ (the recurring, but ultimately distorted, image of “the green”), the dominating usurpation of religion is now emphasized, “a Chapel was built where I used to play on the green”. Contrasting with ‘the Echoing Green’, the speaker describes a suppressed natural world, “tombstones where flowers should be”, and an absence of joy, as indicated by the draining of color, “black gowns”. Arguably, only through the blatant change that transpires between these two visions of innocence and experience is Blake able to demonstrate the Church’s culpability in man’s misery and form his protest. This is similarly applicable in the contrary poems, ‘Infant Joy’ and ‘Infant Sorrow’, in which the change from freedom and joy, “I happy am”, to imprisonment, “swaddling bands”, is subtly paralleled with the transition from the child’s freedom from religion, “I am but two days old” (children were baptized on the third day) to the child’s awareness of its doctrines, “like a fiend hid in a cloud”. Therefore, it could be argued that Blake’s vision of innocence is not itself a protest, as Blake requires the dual presence of innocent and experienced visions to formulate his attack on, and protest against, religious doctrine.
Additionally, as mentioned, crucial to Blake’s protest is his attack on a ‘single vision’. By highlighting both the limitations and advantages of either an innocent or experienced vision, Blake suggests that, for man to progress, a dual perception from innocence and experience is necessary. Thus, Blake’s vision of innocence is not, in itself, a protest, as the latter is arguably formed only by the presence of both innocent and experienced visions. Indeed, in the poems ‘the Chimney Sweeper’, one a vision of innocence and one of experience, Blake implies the need for a dual perception, protesting against a single one. Blake suggests that the speaker’s innocent outlook enables blindness towards his own oppression; “if all do their duty, they need not fear harm”, in which the half rhyme, “warm”, “harm”, chillingly implies that this conclusion is erroneous. In contrast, in ‘the Chimney Sweeper’ of ‘Songs of Experience’, the speaker is strikingly aware of his oppression, “they are gone to praise God and His priest and king who made up a heaven of our misery”. The experienced speaker is unaware, however, as to how he should combat his oppression, contrasting the active responsiveness to circumstances in Blake’s vision of innocence, demonstrated by the Chimney Sweeper’s resilient positivity, “never mind it, for, when your head’s bare, you know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair”. It is the amalgamation of innocence, which enables action, and experience, which enable realization, which would lead to progression. Therefore, through the visions of innocence and experience, Blake reveals the value of a dual perception, forming his protest against a single one. Arguably, Blake’s vision of innocence can only be considered a protest alongside Blake’s contrasting vision of experience, rather than as a form of protest in itself.
However, although much of Blake’s protest has been demonstrated to arise from, and be more effectively presented by, the contrast between the visions of experience and innocence, the latter is itself, nonetheless, arguably still a form of protest. Arguably, Blake’s characterization of children as naturally innocent repudiates and attacks the Christian doctrine of ‘original sin’ (which asserts that children are born evil). In Blake’s vision of innocence, children are explicitly referred to as having “innocent faces” (‘Holy Thursday’). Similarly, the interconnection made between children and the ‘lamb’, a symbol of innocence and Christ, “like lambs we joy” (‘the Little Black Boy’) and “multitude of lambs” (‘Holy Thursday’), signals Blake’s belief that children are naturally innocent. Further, Blake subverts the conventional, oppressive attitudes towards children by giving them dialogue and narrative voices (as in ‘Infant Joy’, ‘the Little Black Boy’ and ‘the Chimney Sweeper’) – a protest in itself. Crucially, Blake additionally presents children as possessing authority; for example, in the ‘Introduction’ to ‘Songs of Innocence’, the adult speaker is directly receptive to the child, as signaled by the repetition of “so”. Therefore, in subverting the oppressive attitudes of ‘original sin’ towards children, Blake’s vision of innocence acts as a protest in itself.
Similarly, Blake’s vision of innocence directly and unashamedly foregrounds those acts, such as the indulgement of physical desire, which religious teaching demonizes. Blake’s sensuous imagery alludes to sexual desire without inhibition; the repeated use of “sweet”, for example, (which is in ‘Infant Joy’, ‘Laughing Song’, ‘Spring’ and ‘the Shepherd’), arguably hints at a sexual and physical dimension to Blake’s vision of innocence and, even more radically, children. This is achieved further by the innocent sexual implications of youthful, playful language, such as “our sport” and “play” (‘the Echoing Green’). Similarly, Blake’s use of tactile imagery, such as “softest” (‘the Lamb’), “soft face” (‘Spring’), “stroke his silver hair” (‘the Little Black Boy’), boldly demonstrates and admits to the pleasure of physical feeling in these visions of innocence. That physical pleasure brings innocent joy is demonstrated especially in ‘Spring’, in which the simplistic rhyming couplets and short 3 syllable lines act to provide immediate resolution and fulfillment for the reader and chime with innocently happy implications. Therefore, akin to Blake’s subversion of oppressive attitudes towards children, the emphasis on the pleasures of sexual and physical fulfillment in Blake’s visions of innocence defy religious indoctrination and, indeed, are a protest in themselves.
However, though Blake’s subversion of convention in his vision of innocence may, indeed, be indicative of its being a protest itself, it is Blake’s use of natural imagery which arguably guarantees the elements of protest in ‘Songs of Innocence’. Crucially, Blake places the visions of innocence, which contain dissent from religious convention, in a pastoral setting; for example, in ‘Introduction’, the speaker, who responds to the child’s requests, is “piping down the valleys wild”. Further, children, supposedly born evil from ‘original sin’, are linked to the natural world, “like birds in their nest” (‘the Echoing Green’) and “I a child, and thou a lamb” (‘the Lamb’), in which the child and nature are linked by the symmetrical structure of the line. Arguably, the personification of the natural world, for example the anthropomorphic images of “the dimpling stream runs laughing by” (‘Laughing Song’), “the sun does arise and make happy the skies” (‘the Echoing Green’), acts to close the dichotomy between man and nature, suggesting an inherent naturalness to man in this innocent state. Additionally, in ‘the Blossom’, Blake creates a vision of innocent, uninhibited discovery of sexual experience, demonstrated by the fertile, sexual images of the “blossom” and “my bosom”, the phallic one of the “arrow”, and the sensuous aspirated sounds, “happy”, “hears”, and “sobbing, sobbing”. Importantly, this blatantly sexual content is intimately linked with nature, “under leaves so green” (which is repeated twice) and “robin near my bosom”. Similarly, in the visions of innocence of ‘Spring’ and ‘the Echoing Green’, both of which allude to physical indulgence, “our sports” and “come and lick my white neck”, the sexual implications are closely linked to nature, “cock does crow, so do you” and “our sports shall be seen on the echoing green”. Therefore, Blake’s vision of innocence is, arguably, a form of protest; these visions contain defiant dissent from religious doctrines, as in the unashamed demonstration of physical pleasure, as well as the divergences from ‘original sin’. Moreover, by characterizing these rejections of Christian doctrine as natural, Blake implicitly condemns the repressive religious teaching as unnatural. From this vantage point, Blake’s vision of innocence is, indeed, a protest in itself.
To conclude, there are clearly multiple aspects to Blake’s protest in ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’. Indeed, much of his protest establishes itself through the contrasts between visions of innocence and experience; which reveal both the failures of a single vision and the wrongdoings of the Church. However, whilst the vision of innocence, in itself, may not reveal the entirety of Blake’s protest, it nonetheless acts as a form of protest; albeit, perhaps, a less effective or striking one. In the visions of innocence, Christian doctrines, which emphasize ‘original sin’ and sexual repression, “make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (Roman, 13:14), are defied. Blake unashamedly insists upon, and asserts the naturalness of, sexual desire, sexual discovery, and children’s innocence; thus Blake’s vision of innocence is, indeed, itself a form of protest.
Freedom and Oppression
Blake’s protest against oppression of the human spirit is a clear and assertive one, yet his methods to establish it are subtly employed. The collection of poems establishes, as Blake intended, two “contrary visions” of freedom and oppression. Although this innocent freedom may have its limitations, Blake’s use of antithetical images nonetheless brings into harsh light, and condemns, the suffering felt under oppression. Furthermore, natural imagery is crucial to Blake’s protest in endorsing free human spirit, whilst characterizing oppression as a violation and suppression of man’s natural being. Finally, Blake’s interesting appropriation of a wide range of voices is significant to his subversion of convention, as well as in demonstrating the extensive impact of oppression. Thus, by presenting the consequences and unnaturalness of oppression, emphasized by the contrasting image of freedom, Blake devises his protest.
To begin, it is important to explore both how and why Blake portrays both freedom and oppression. Arguably, through showing the joys of free human spirit, Blake is able to emphasize the consequences of its oppression and thus heighten his protest against this. In ‘Songs of Innocence’, the reader sees an image of freedom. For example, in ‘the Echoing Green’, Blake makes use of bird imagery, “skylark and thrush”, “birds of the bush”, “like birds in their nest”, symbolic of freedom, as well as carefree language, “happy”, “merry”, “cheerful”, “play”, and most explicitly, “laugh away care”. A similar sense of freedom is evoked in ‘Infant Joy’, in which the simplistic repetition, “pretty joy! Sweet joy, but two days old. Sweet joy I call thee”, portrays a state of simple happiness in freedom. The structure of the poems in ‘Songs of Innocence’ is also crucial to portraying the joy Blake believes is found in freedom; for example, ‘Spring’, in its three syllable lines, has a rhythmic jollity to it, in which one line seems to trip onto the next and chime with happy implication. Similarly, in ‘the Echoing Green’, the five syllable lines, where English poetry traditionally uses four syllable lines, again causes the poem to almost rhythmically ‘skip’.
Significantly juxtaposing this presentation of joyful freedom is Blake’s portrayal of misery, suffering and imprisonment in oppression. In contrast to the free images of flight in ‘Songs of Innocence’, Blake utilizes claustrophobic, imprisoning language in ‘Songs of Experience’: in ‘London’, man is described as having “mind-forged manacles” and, in the ‘Introduction’ to Experience, Earth is “prisoned”, restricted by “this heavy chain”. These claustrophobic and restrictive images are emphasized further by the imagery of suffering, most particularly in ‘London’. The repetition of “cry” in ‘London’, which somberly echoes in the poem with other harrowing imagery, “sigh”, “blight”, evokes an immense sense of misery. Further, Blake’s strategic use of rhythm in ‘London’, “in every cry of every man” and “in every voice, in every ban”, creates heavy stresses and an exhausted sound to the poem. Blake formulates a draining of color from ‘Songs of Innocence’ to ‘Songs of Experience’. The poems shift from “leaves so green” (‘the Blossom’) and “children walking in red, and blue, and green” (‘Holy Thursday’) to “grey despair”, “hoar” (‘Earth’s Answer’) and “black gowns” (‘the Garden of Love’). Thus, whilst freedom appears vivid and exciting, oppression of the human spirit is portrayed as lifeless and bleak. Also significant is the direct comparison Blake encourages between ‘Infant Joy’ and ‘Infant Sorrow’. Blake’s repetition of “infant” (in the title), as well as his similar structures of the poems (both have only two stanzas), indicate his intention for the reader to directly compare freedom and oppression. Whilst we see an image of freedom and happiness in ‘Infant Joy’, ‘Infant Sorrow’ presents misery and imprisonment, “my mother groaned, my father wept”, as well as the restrictive imagery of “swaddling bands” and “bound”. Blake also uses contrasting sound in the two poems; the lines in ‘Infant Joy’ generally end with open and soft sounds, “thee” (four times), “while”, “smile”, “name”, “am”, whereas, in ‘Infant Sorrow’, the sound is closed and abrasive, “wept”, “leapt”, “loud”, “best”, “breast”. Blake intends for us to look at these two poems, one an image of freedom of the human spirit and one of its oppression, and clearly identify the joy of freedom, in contrast to the condemnable misery of oppression. Overall, only by drawing this vision of free human spirit and contrasting it so blatantly with ‘Songs of Experience’ is Blake able to demonstrate the extent of oppression. His protest is achieved by showing what freedom looks like; forcing the reader to realize, and appall at, the oppressive society of Blake’s time.
Furthermore, Blake’s use, specifically, of natural imagery, which is applied contrastingly in ‘Songs of Innocence’ and ‘Songs of Experience’, is instrumental in protesting against the oppression of the human spirit. In ‘Songs of Innocence’, freedom of the human spirit (which I have already established is present in the ‘Innocence’ poems) and the joy this creates are closely associated with nature. Blake’s natural settings place joy and freedom in a natural context; in the ‘Introduction’ to Innocence, for example, the speaker is “piping down the valleys wild”, in ‘the Echoing Green’, “sitting under the oak” and in ‘Laughing Song’, the speaker sits in “the meadows”. In contrast, Blake opts for an urban setting in ‘London’, referencing the suppression of nature in its commercialization, “the chartered Thames”. Further, in ‘Songs of Innocence’, Blake’s bird imagery both implies freedom and naturalness, as the free, spirited speakers are describes as “like birds in their nest” (‘the Echoing Green’). Blake’s natural imagery in ‘Songs of Innocence’ is flourishing and fertile, as suggested by the very title of the poem ‘Spring’ and its celebration of new life, “merrily, merrily to welcome in the year”. Arguably also, the anthropomorphic imagery used to describe nature, “the painted birds laugh” (‘Laughing Song’) and “the happy skies” (‘the Echoing Green’) blurs the distinction between nature and man, symbolic of man’s greater naturalness in this free human spirit.
In contrast, in ‘Songs of Experience’, the oppression of the human spirit is described with suppressed natural images of night and winter, such as “cold”, the “darkness dread and drear” (‘Earth’s Answer’), in which the alliterative plosives establish an unpleasant sound, and “midnight streets” (‘London’). This shift from the naturalness of free human spirit and the unnaturalness of its oppression culminate in the poems, ‘the Garden of Love’ and ‘the Schoolboy’. In ‘the Garden of Love’, we see the shift from “sweet flowers” to “graves”, “tombstones”, and the more sinister image of nature, “briars”. The echo, here, of Christ’s ‘Crown of Thorns’ (the Crucifixion story) in “briars” is hugely significant, arguably implying that the Church’s own oppression of mankind is reminiscent of Christ’s suffering and oppression. Similarly, in ‘the Schoolboy’, Blake symbolizes the oppression of a child’s free spirit through the images of oppressed nature, “how can the bird that is born for joy sit in a cage and sing?”. The schoolboy, forced into restrictive rote learning and robbed of his free human spirit, is symbolized by the “tender plants stripped of their joy” and “blossoms blown away”. Therefore, it is clear that Blake casts the freedom of human spirit as man’s natural state through his pure and bright images of nature and natural setting. In contrast, the oppression of the human spirit is symbolized with suppressed images of the natural world; thus Blake condemns oppression of the human spirit as unnatural and builds his protest further through that.
Finally, Blake’s wide use of voice is significant to his protest. Blake employs the voices of children, newborn babies, the Earth and, in ‘London’, numerous characters. It is first important to examine Blake’s use of youthful voices. For example, in the ‘Introduction’ to Innocence, the child speaker is vocal and imperative, “Pipe a song about a Lamb!”, “Piper, pipe that song again”. Crucially, the adult narrative voice is responsive to the child, “so I piped with merry cheer”, in which the use of “so” presents the adult’s action as a direct reaction to the child’s request. In ‘Infant Joy’, the baby is equally vocal and, again, in ‘Spring’. It is important to note that Blake wrote in a society which held the attitude that children should have their natural instincts of sexual desire, joy and curiosity repressed (as ‘the Schoolboy’ shows), thus Blake’s vocalization of children (at a time when they ought to be ‘seen and not heard’) is, in itself, a protest against oppression of the human spirit. Blake’s use of voice is also instrumental in demonstrating the extensive and wide impacts of oppression, which range from misery of just a newborn baby (‘Infant Sorrow’), “struggling in my father’s hands”, to the suffering of the Earth (‘Earth’s Answer’), “freeze my bones around”. Additionally, Blake’s reference to many characters in ‘London’, “the chimney-sweeper’s cry”, “the hapless’ soldier’s sigh”, “youthful harlot’s curse”, “new-born infant’s tear”, heightens the sense of consequences of oppression, as the reader is overwhelmed by the number of contrasting figures in suffering. Thus, Blake’s voices in ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ are significant both in their being a protest in themselves (the vocalisation of children) and in further protesting against the extensive suffering that transpires under oppression.
To conclude, Blake’s formulation of his protest against the oppression of human spirit is skillful and constructed in many ways, most particularly in his envisioning of two parallel states of freedom and restriction. Blake’s natural imagery, as well as the emphasis on the many who suffer from oppression, vehemently condemns the restriction of human spirit. Moreover, Blake protests against oppression through his revelation to the reader of how true freedom appears, the joys and wonders that result from a free human spirit, and the juxtaposition of this with the horrific image of oppressed human spirit. Through these ‘contrary visions’, Blake creates his protest.
Contrasting Visions of the World: The Echoing Green and London
In ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’, Blake evokes contrasting visions of the world. The two poems, ‘The Echoing Green’ and ‘London’, are especially characteristic of these contrary visions; evoking polar opposite images of innocence, corruption and freedom. Blake uses both contrasting (for example, the different use of tone) and similar ways (the use of sound as a poetic device) to evoke contrary visions in the two poems: one of freedom, joy, and one of corruption.
The most immediate contrast between the two poems is the overwhelming vision of misery in ‘London’, compared to the embodiment of joy in ‘the Echoing Green’. Blake, it should be noted, utilizes similar poetic techniques to evoke these different visions. For example, Blake’s prevalent sensory imagery in both poems heightens the contrary visions of each one. In ‘London’, Blake references the sounds of misery, “cry” (which is repeated thrice), “soldier’s sigh”, “curse”, “tear”. Sensory imagery is crucial to ‘the Echoing Green’ too, which describes the “laughing” (repeated twice), “the bells’ cheerful sound”, “the merry bells ring”, and the “birds of the bush [which] sing louder”. Blake’s focus, particularly, on auditory imagery, in both poems, aids the presentation of overwhelming misery and joy in ‘London’ and ‘the Echoing Green’ respectively. In ‘London’, the overwhelming vision of misery is emphasized by the actual sound of Blake’s language, for example the repeated plosives, “ban”, “blackening”, “blood”, “blasts”, “blights”, and the dejected alliterative sibilance of the “soldier’s sigh”. Additionally, Blake dramatically morphs human misery into physical form, “soldier’s sigh runs in blood down palace-walls” and “blackening church”; horrific images which further the presence of misery. Indeed, these metaphors are symptomatic of Blake’s far darker, far more dramatic, tone in ‘London’, “mind-forged manacles”, “plagues”, “hearse”, which contrasts the significantly more light-hearted tone of ‘the Echoing Green’. In the latter, the monosyllabic language and deliberately simplistic tone, “the sun does arise”, “the birds of the bush”, evoke an image of innocent joy. Therefore, through auditory imagery, as well as the tone, Blake establishes contrasting visions of joy and misery in these two poems.
The structure of each poem aids the presentation of Blake’s contrary visions of joy and misery, freedom and entrapment. It should first be evinced that ‘the Echoing Green’, in its comparison of the characters to “birds in their nests”, suggests a vision of freedom, which is highlighted further by that “old John, with white hair, does laugh away care”. In contrast, ‘London’, quite obviously, asserts imprisonment through the description of the “mind-forged manacles” and inexorability of “every” individual’s suffering. In ‘the Echoing Green’, this evoked sense of simple freedom is emphasized further by the consistent rhyming couplets, which chime with happy implications and are, in themselves, simplistic – usually only one syllable masculine rhymes. Blake’s five syllable lines in ‘the Echoing Green’, additionally, trip each line of the poem into the next, instilling in its rhythm excitement and energy. In contrast, Blake’s use of rhythm in ‘London’ evokes an entirely contrary vision. For example, the repetition of “every”, “every cry of every man”, establishes a heavy and arduous rhythm, which reflects the general vision of misery in the poem. Thus, in both poems, Blake skillfully uses the rhythm and structure of the poems to construct and echo their contrasting meanings.
Furthermore, Blake’s contrary visions in ‘the Echoing Green’ and ‘London’ are evoked, in part, through the contrasting senses of community and isolation in each one respectively, which Blake achieves through his subtle language choices. For example, in ‘the Echoing Green’, Blake’s repeated first person plural, “our sports”, “our youth-time”, “our play”, as well as his unifying language, “among the old folk”, “when we all – girls and boys”, evoke a sense of community. Further, Blake’s language signifies a harmoniously interacting world, “the merry bells ring to welcome the spring”, “the birds sing louder to the bells’ cheerful sound”. In both, “to” signals the different elements, “the merry bells”, “the spring”, “the birds”, all reacting to one another harmoniously. Similarly, the harmony between the old and young is suggested by the fond nostalgia felt by the former towards the latter, “soon they all say ‘such, such were the joys’”. Finally, Blake’s multiple voices in ‘the Echoing Green’ (the use of the young narrator and older speaker, Old John) create a further sense of warm community, even equality, which juxtaposes the anonymity implied in ‘London’. Indeed, whilst voices are named in ‘the Echoing Green’, (Old John), in ‘London’, individuals are referred to only by their occupation, “the chimney-sweeper”, “the hapless soldier”, “the youthful harlot”. This anonymous portrayal of individuals, who are defined only by their professions, is further evidence of Blake’s vision of an overtly, excessively, commercialized society, which is concerned only with a person’s economic identity (their occupation). Additionally, in ‘London’, in contrast to ‘the Echoing Green’, Blake uses a first person singular, “I wander”, denoting a sense of isolation. However, it should be noted, Blake still uses inclusive language in ‘London’, most notably the repetition of “every”, as is done similarly in ‘the Echoing Green’. Yet, whilst the inclusive language of ‘the Echoing Green’ asserts unity, in ‘London’, its function is only to present misery as inescapable, as an absolute in modern society, “in every face I meet, marks of weakness, marks of woe”, “every cry”, “every infant’s cry of fear”. In ‘London’, any unity arises only from misery, juxtaposing the unified joy in ‘the Echoing Green’, “they laugh at our play”.
The portrayals of the natural world in both poems are crucial to each one’s meaning. ‘the Echoing Green’ asserts a natural state and cycle of man in his innocence, contrasting Blake’s use and presentation of nature in ‘London’. Notably, in ‘the Echoing Green’, man’s actions are closely linked to the natural world, “many sisters and brothers like birds in their nests”, and the cycle of man’s day (from the beginning to the end of “our sports”) is structurally framed by a similar cycle of nature, “the sun does arise” (the opening of the poem) and “the sun does descend” (the end). Further, the significant presence of natural imagery in the poem, “the sun”, “the spring”, “the skylark and thrush”, “the oak”, in which the “oak” is an image of continuity, and even in the poem’s title, “’the Echoing Green’”, reveals Blake’s intent to closely associate man’s own cycle (from young to old etc.) and innocent state of mind to nature. Indeed, Blake blatantly links the innocent joy of man, “laugh away care”, with the natural world, “old John, with white hair, does laugh away care sitting under the oak”. Thus, Blake asserts, not only, the naturalness of man’s cycles, but also suggests man’s natural state as being in the “joys…seen on ‘the Echoing Green’”, i.e. in innocence and freedom.
In contrast, the impact of natural imagery in ‘London’ is to suggest a misery that has permeated all levels of life, as well as evoking an unnatural vision of commercialization and corruption, which seem to dominate Blake’s world in the poem. Blake describes the “midnight streets”, wherein ‘midnight’, a noun, is turned into an adjective, arguably as if the streets themselves are the darkness, rather only than in darkness. In contrast, Blake’s use of natural imagery in ‘the Echoing Green’ suggests a world permeated by joy, “make happy the skies”. Notably, in both poems, Blake projects anthropomorphic imagery onto the natural and physical world; for example the “happy” skies in ‘the Echoing Green’. However, this is to contrasting effects. In ‘the Echoing Green’, Blake’s personification of the natural world, placed alongside the natural imagery to describe man, “like birds in their nest”, blurs the distinction between nature and man. Arguably, Blake’s use of natural imagery suggests that man is, within this vision of innocence in ‘the Echoing Green’, so in his natural state that the chasm between nature and man ceases to exist. In ways arguably similar to this, Blake places language of the manmade world onto the natural world in ‘London’, “chartered Thames does flow”; however, this instead signals an immense permeation of man’s corruption and greed in the world. Furthermore, this referenced commercialization of the natural world, “chartered Thames”, echoes the appearance of a dominating capitalist system, which similarly commodifies human experience, in Blake’s reference to the “harlot” and the “chartered streets”. Therefore, through the use of imagery relating to humans and nature, Blake presents contrasting visions of mankind and society in ‘the Echoing Green’ and ‘London’.
However, it is important to consider that, although the two poems appear, and indeed still are, contrary in their visions, ‘the Echoing Green’’s subtle negative undertones foreshadow the vision described in ‘London’. Thus, the two poems may not be only contrary but, instead, a development and echo of one another. The conclusion of ‘the Echoing Green’ has an underlying hint of loss when the refrain shifts from “’the Echoing Green’” to “the darkening green”; implying, it could be argued, a fear that the values described just prior are fading (a fear which ‘London’ then confirms). Indeed, within the very title of the poem, “echoing”, there is a seed of inevitable decline. The transition of Blake’s repeated reference to “sports” in each stanza, which “shall be seen” then “were seen”, then “no more [were] seen”, and which, interestingly, evade ever being in the present tense, arguably imply an unreachability to Blake’s own hope for innocent freedom – a fear which ‘London’ then brings to fruition. Therefore, although the poems undoubtedly evoke contrary visions, they may simultaneously echo and foreshadow one another (especially when it is considered that Blake released ‘Songs of Experience’ only ever with ‘Songs of Innocence’, possibly indicating that he intended a degree of continuity).
To conclude, therefore, Blake clearly presents two hauntingly contrary visions in ‘the Echoing Green’ and ‘London’; but, it should be noted, achieves this through both similar and differing poetic devices. ‘the Echoing Green’ is an example of the joy that can be found in innocence, harmony and freedom; whilst ‘London’ reveals, possibly more realistically, a world absent of these qualities. Perhaps, though, ‘the Echoing Green’ and ‘London’ should be considered as more than only contrary visions and, instead, as Blake’s deliberate attempt to reveal the inevitable shift from innocence to experience.
Romantic Poets & the Poetic Problem of Representing London
Writing on nineteenth-century London poetry, William Sharpe comments that ‘Regardless of shared reference to sublimity, fog, of Babylonian blindness, each poet’s London is different. Each time we read ‘London’ we have to begin again.’ For poets in the late eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, London was a frustratingly difficult subject to capture, as it was a city that dealt in confusing excess and masses. Many of the Romantic poets of this period had a disdain for capitalism and its practices; something which London seemed corrupted by. As Michael Ferber comments, ‘The Romantics looked everywhere – to the guilds of the Middle Ages, to the cities of Ancient Greece, to the tribes of ‘noble savages’ in America of Tahiti, to the clans of Scotland, even to the mysterious Gypsies – for models uncorrupted by capitalism and cash.’ Yet for poets like Wordsworth and Blake, the city of London constituted a large part of their identity, and seemingly could not be dismissed or exiled from their poetry. If the distaste for capitalism and commercialism was not enough of a source of frustration in London, Sharpe also points out that not only did these poets experience a ‘mind forg’d aversion’ to the city, but also suffered from quite literal blindness, as ‘not only was the city in its obstreperous plenitude and ceaseless mobility resistant to efforts to view it poetically, it was also quite simply hard to see, thank to fog, smoke, and darkness.’ With its ‘ceaseless motion’, thick fog, and persistent growth and change, London was seemingly inimitable and indescribable. Wordsworth and Blake were somewhat forced to cast the faculty of vision aside in their poetry of London and treat it in different ways, in an attempt to capture at least an essence of their impression of it. Whilst Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ attempts to encapsulate too much, and culminates in frustration, despair, and distaste for the city, Blake’s famous affection for working in ‘particulars’ awards his poetry some sense of the whole by capturing floating snippets of London life just as the individual would have apprehended it. Romantic poetry found an anti-sublime, or urban sublime in London, as it similarly presented an unmeasurable realm, yet attempts to apprehend or understand did not bring about any sense of greatness or joy. Ensnaring voice, sounds, and close, perceptible objects bring the poets close to gleaning an impression of London, yet both Wordsworth and Blake find themselves receding into death, or exile from the city which partially escapes imitation and can offer no comfort or greater knowledge as perhaps the ‘Romantic’ mountains and lakes are able to.
One of the most crucial features of London in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century (and continuing today) is its perpetual movement and change. As Sharpe notes, ‘Although poets often paused to stare at the city, whether from a window or in the midst of a crowded street, motion was what they saw; it was the city’s key feature and its essential literary identity’. In addition to this, Richard Schwartz points out that ‘the eighteenth-century Londoner was subjected to what would seem to be an intolerable amount (and volume) of street noise’. The confusion and discomfort leading from these conditions become apparent in the seventh book of Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ where he apprehends Bartholomew Fair:
What a hell/For eyes and ears, what anarchy and din/Barbarian and infernal – ‘tis a dream/ Monstrous in colour, motion, shape, sight, sound
Wordsworth perceives the fair as offensive to every faculty, demonstrated by his fervent listing of ‘colour, motion, shape, sight, sound’. In fact the motion and noise is so odious to him that he gives up on attempts to describe it, removing it instead to the realm of a ‘dream’, as his perceptions are so overwhelmed that they do not seem in line with reality. Blake, instead of trying to perceive the whole all at once, utilises a kind of tunnel vision in his poem ‘London’, which picks out particular sounds, and by merit of doing so, presents them as representative of the most important, or prominent sounds of the city:
In every cry of every man,/In every infant’s cry of fear,/In every voice, in every ban,/The mind-forged manacles I hear
He begins here with a focus on one ‘man’s’ cry, then attributing this to a collection of ‘every voice’, creating a sense of only hearing one or two cries, yet acknowledging that this is one as part of many ‘cries’ in the city. Blake does not only hear the simple cries either, but hears ‘the mind-forged’ manacles within the sound, making sense of the noise by building from pinpointed apprehensions in a way that Wordsworth does not in his writing of Bartholomew Fair. Blake also creates a kind of hierarchy of sense in the poem, writing:
But most, though midnight streets I hear/How the youthful Harlot’s curse/Blasts the new-born infant’s tear [13-15]
The ‘Harlot’s curse’ has now risen above the other cries in the poem as the ‘most’ frequent, and presumably, by note of its ‘blast’, the loudest sound to Blake. Again, the sound also has an action in the poem, blasting the ‘new-born infant’s tear’, making sense of the sound rather than leaving it as meaningless noise. Deprived of vision in the foggy streets of London, Blake thus draws attention to minute sounds then ‘zooms out’ to reveal them as representative of something larger in the city, something also exemplified in his poem ‘The Chimney-Sweeper’:
A little black thing among the snow,/Crying! ‘weep! weep!’ in notes of woe! [1-2]
The young chimney-sweep was a stark and common symbol of the woes of Industrial London, and here Blake again zooms in in order to zoom out by first presenting ‘a little black thing’, then placing it ‘among the snow’, perhaps the mass ‘blank’ that London presents in attempts to view it as a whole. In the singular voice of the chimney-sweep, Blake is able to convey a sense of shared London experience, as he touches on the abysmal practice of selling children into the trade, ‘they are both gone up’, the darkness and soot of London, ‘clothed me in the clothes of death’,  and perhaps even the blind eyes of the church to these latter two miseries, ‘they are gone to praise God and His priest and king’[.] Where London cannot be imitated by means of his own vision or voice, Blake instead appropriates the voices and ‘cries’ of those most representative of living London; the chimney-sweep, the prostitute, or the solider, working in particulars in order to reach a fuller portrait of the city.
Wordsworth struggles in book seven of ‘The Prelude’ to mark out particulars in the same way as Blake, and instead attempts to categorise all that he immediately sees:
And every character of form and face:/The Swede, the Russian; from the genial south,/The Frenchman and the Spaniard; from remote/America, the hunter Indian; Moors,/Malays, Lascars, the Tartar and Chinese,/And negro ladies in white muslin gowns. [VII, P]
At first, his impression, or imitation, works well – he manages to categorise the mass of people he apprehends into various groups in order to make sense of the scene to the reader. However, we see that quickly, and fairly early on, vision quickly becomes a tiresome and difficult mode of expression. The ‘animating breeze’ that had previously met him on entry to the city, transforms into ‘straggling breezes’, whilst the ‘ almost joyous ‘quick dance of colours, lights and forms’ degenerates into ‘a weary throng’. [VII, P] Imitation and description through vision becomes very shaky at the point at which the narrator encounters the beggar:
‘twas my chance/Abruptly to be smitten with the view/Of a blind beggar, who, with upright face,/Stood propped against a wall, upon his chest/Wearing a written paper to explain/The story of the man and who he was./My mind did at this spectacle turn round/As with the might of waters [VII, P]
The lineation here presents a very fragmented moment of perception – working in an almost inverse way to Blake. He apprehends the beggar, then only slowly is able to pick out various specific features, most importantly noting ‘the story of the man and who he was’ only last, whereas for Blake, this ‘story’ of the person of London is inherent throughout his poetry. In addition, the sight causes the narrator’s mind to ‘turn round’ rather than engage with the figure. We see then that vision is not completely off-limits or totally obscured, but simply an unreliable and challenging form to use in attempts to encapsulate a sense of London.
Though Blake’s London poetry is highly sonorous, it cannot said to be entirely so – he also makes use of the visual, though in an entirely different way to Wordsworth. Blake again makes use of his ‘roads’ into representation – that is to say, he approaches one particular feature in order to express something larger. For example:
the chimney-sweeper’s cry/Every blackening church appals,/And the hapless soldier’s sigh/Runs in blood down palace walls. [L, I&E]
Here, Blake makes the intangible ‘sigh’ and ‘cry’ tangible, and visual in doing so. Instead of trying to apprehend the people, landscapes, and societal structures of London all at once via a visual narration, Blake takes the sound of the sighing soldier and attaches it to the building, and thus institution of the Monarchy, uniting them all in one image to both create a simple impression, whilst also commenting in a naturalized way on the faults of the ruling body. He thus uses a kind of ‘road’ into creating a visual image by picking up on the immediately perceptible and apparent, which in this case are the sounds of London, connecting them, again, to larger structures.
Though Blake indeed appears to get closer to imitating the inimitable scope of London than Wordsworth, both poets recede away from the subject just as they come close to grasping or apprehending it, finding that the grim realities of the city and its confounding largeness thwart a complete and satisfying impression of a ‘whole’, as well as stunting the desire to find beauty in it. In the case of Wordsworth, as we see his attempt to capture everything fail, he finds himself retreating into obscurity in a last ditch effort to describe what he sees:
Here, fronts of houses, like a title-page,/With letters huge inscribed from top to toe;/Stationed above the door, like guardian saints,/There allegoric shapes, female or male [VII, P]
We see an amalgamation of similes here, as he begins to look to comparisons to familiar objects for comparison in ‘a title page’ and ‘guardian saints’. He then rests on ‘allegoric shapes’, and later in the poem we find that ‘all the shapes before [his] eyes became/A second-sight procession such as glides/Over still mountains, or appears in dreams’.[VII, P] The scene becomes so confusing to him that all the shapes recede into the ‘mountains’ and ‘dreams’ where he clearly finds comfort, no longer even situated in the city in which he feels such discomfort. The city has shut him out, and he must retreat into the country landscapes to end his feeling of ‘oppression’ in being unable to grasp the city as a whole. For Blake, there is no perceptible ‘retreat’ in the same sense as Wordsworth’s, but instead the partially-formed portraits of London simply dissolve into meaninglessness and despair. As aforementioned, Blake builds up a highly successful impression of London in lines 9-12 of ‘London’ through voices leading into buildings and institutions, yet this image is overcome by the final stanza:
But most, through midnight streets I hear/How the youthful harlot’s curse/Blasts the new-born infant’s tear,/And blights with plagues the marriage hearse. [13-16, L, I&E]
We see a generational handing down here, with both literal and linear regression from ‘harlot’ to ‘infant’, as the innocent child is blighted by its mother’s venereal disease. Blake further regresses from disease to death, as he attributes the ‘plague’ to the ‘marriage hearse’, which should be a site of new beginnings and life. The poem suddenly falls quiet as the cries stop and death consumes the poem and its images of London, having almost grasped a full impression of it.
It would of course be difficult to discern whether a poet ever could objectively grasp London, which continues to flow with perpetual movement, and as Sharpe has asserted, is different to every poet. Indeed it seems that both Wordsworth and Blake found the city difficult to tackle and apprehend in poetry, as even in the glimpses they managed via alternate means to vision, the reward was only a clearer view of the age in which, as Margaret George describes, was a period ‘when many sections of opinion were agreed that the age was increasingly evil’. The city’s mass and perpetual dynamism evaded them, and even when caught, provided only a gratification in faithfully presenting grim realities in stark contrasts to the mountains and sublime landscapes often at the heart of Romantic poetry. It would perhaps take until the late nineteenth- and early twentieth- century with the budding methods and style of modernism to apprehend the city’s complexities head on.