Songs of Innocence and of Experience
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
Wordsworth and Blake: The Plight of Mankind
William Wordsworth and William Blake were both distraught by the plight of man in the early nineteenth century. Their separate but somewhat unified visions of man’s problems are displayed in their poems “Lines Written in Early Spring,” (lines 5-24) and “London,” respectively. They both make use of several poetic devices in very different manners to convey nearly the same meaning. Each poet uses the mood of his poem to show how deep in strife man truly is, though the tone of each poem vastly contrasts with the other. Both Blake and Wordsworth also link man to another entity, and each also use meter and rhyme scheme to show the same. Stylistically, the poems are extremely dissimilar, and the contents of each are tremendously unalike, but ultimately, they both point out the same issues with which man is dealing.Wordsworth’s “Lines” sets the tone immediately by setting the reader in a pleasant situation and using peaceful imagery. The reader is brought to a grove in which the writer is observing Nature; the birds “hopped and played” (13), which “seemed a thrill of pleasure” (16), and “The budding twigs spread out their fan/To catch the breezy air” (17). He works at illustrating the joy and serenity around him while only hinting at the much darker plight of man without spelling it out, without even coming close to breaking the tone he has so carefully constructed. In fact, because he purposely avoids saying exactly what it is that “man has made of man” (8), he allows the reader to imagine the entire quandary on his own, and in contrast to the peaceable surroundings at the grove, the reader is very likely to imagine the worst. Blake, on the other hand, uses harsh and tragic imagery to convey just how harsh and tragic the world was. While Wordsworth’s tactic was to use soft imagery to show how troubled man was, Blake utilizes severe imagery to show the same. He writes that the “hapless Soldier’s sigh/Runs in blood down Palace walls” (11), and makes use twice of infants crying (6,15). He uses words that press upon the reader images of being ruled, of being oppressed. The minds of the working class men are shackled, and the streets and the river themselves are “chartered,” or sanctioned by the ruling class. He juxtaposes the words ‘marriage’ and ‘hearse’ in the last line, as the final two words of the poem, to show that everything that once stood for life and happiness now means death and sadness. While Wordsworth subtly hints at the problems man has imposed upon himself, Blake forces them upon the reader so that the point cannot be missed.One of the most vivid images Blake brings into play is that of the “black’ning church” (10). It is crucial that one takes into account the meanings of this line. The word ‘black’ning’ functions as both transitive and intransitive. The church is both becoming more blackened and working as a blackening agent to the people, such as the chimney sweeper in the preceding line. The church, or those who run the church, are not doing their jobs in the world that Blake is depicting. The church is associated with the elitist ruling class, and the church itself is becoming filthy, covered with the soot of oppression while dishing it out, perpetuating the ruling class tyranny. Wordsworth also brings God into his poem and comments upon His role in the world he is describing. In “Lines,” man is tied to Nature, and Nature to God. Every element in Wordworth’s poem is enjoying the simple act of being. When he writes in the last stanza, “If this belief from heaven be sent/If such be Nature’s holy plan/Have I not reason to lament/What man has made of man?” (21), he is saying clearly that though we are intended to live as Nature lives, man is not doing so, hence his sadness. We are not following the plan. In both poems, God is being disobeyed, and it is in part this disobedience that is causing so much discord, though perhaps it is said more explicitly by Blake than Wordsworth.In writing about Nature enjoying the act of being, Wordsworth is doing more than just showing that we are not following God’s plan. He is also showing the link between man and Nature through personification. He writes that “…every flower/Enjoys the air it breathes” (11), and that the branches “…spread out their fan/To catch the breezy air”(17). Earlier, in saying that Nature is linked to “The human soul that through me ran” (6), he is later showing how there is a little human soul in every movement and action of Nature, such as in the acts of the flower enjoying breathing and the twigs finding pleasure in the breeze. He is writing about how things should be, and simply stating that they are not. Blake, on the other hand, writes bluntly about what is, and does not bother with how things should be. He does this by linking the working man to the institution of the elitist oppressing upper class. Blake strategically capitalizes only particular words in his poem. Every word he capitalizes is either a member of the rural class (“Infants” (6), “Chimney-sweepers” (9), “Harlot’s” (14))or a symbol for the overpowering aristocracy (“Thames” (2), “Church” (10), “Palace” (12)). He is showing subtly that man and the institution are in direct opposition to one another, and by capitalizing them, he is giving them both the power to dominate. Both poets link man with another entity in order to show a problem in the system.Blake and Wordsworth also use their language to help express the crisis of man. Blake uses complex wording to reflect the complexity of the problems. He is trying to depict a world in which the rapidly industrializing economy is corrupting and poisoning everything with which it comes into contact. He uses lines such as “mind-forged manacles” (8), which is a complicated and terrible thought conveyed in a mere two words, and “Every black’ning Church appalls” (10), which is also a complicated line, being that it can have more than one meaning. He urges the reader to stop and think about what he is saying, and not to take it lightly. His metaphors are stark and violent, and his lines move quickly and seem almost rushed. This parallels how he feels about man’s plight. It is difficult, violent, and is continuing to grow at a rapid pace. Wordsworth, however, uses simple language to show that the problem we have is simple at its base. He uses very a very basic vocabulary to portray very basic imagery; in fact he uses only one word in the entire poem that is more than two syllables. The reader does not need more than this in order to see that a problem exists, particularly since Wordsworth wants the reader to envision the problem in his own way. More complex words might invite a more complex image, which the poet does not want. He merely wants to show that man is not in accordance with his roots, which is a simple idea that can be expressed in a simple manner. The roots themselves are simple, being that man should enjoy life for what it is, and not make anything else of mankind.The meter and rhyme scheme of both poems are also very simple, both being written in iambic pentameter nearly the entire way through, and each sharing an ABAB rhyme scheme. These alternate rhyming lines in “London” serve to perpetuate the monotony and repetitive predictability of the circle of suffering in the city. However, the meter in the poem is not consistent throughout, beginning with iambic pentameter and then veering towards less conventional trochaic pentameter at line 9, but returning to iambic pentameter for the final line. This is to assist in showing that everything is not as it should be; the world is in discord. Though Blake makes tremendous effort to show ‘how things are,’ he makes an effort here to show that this is not how they should be. Things just don’t make sense as they are. Wordsworth uses the same sort of strategy in “Lines” as does Blake. Each verse is written in iambic pentameter, with the same simple rhyme scheme as “London.” However, the final and fourth line of every stanza is written in iambic tetrameter, being a foot short of the rest of the verse. This leaves the reader feeling somewhat dissatisfied, feeling as is something is missing, that there should be something more. Wordsworth does this for the same reason that Blake does it; to subtly let the reader know that something really isn’t right. It leaves the reader with a sensation of discontent, perhaps even near frustration, and causes further thought upon the poem, which is what both poets had planned.It can be seen through these often subtle and sometimes blatant poetic devices that both Blake and Wordsworth are trying to convey to the reader that there is an underlying problem facing mankind. Though they go about it in contrasting ways, the means with which they portray their particular ideas are the same. Through imagery, tone, and meter, among other tactics, each shows in his own way that there is something very wrong with man in this particular time setting.
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.
The Outcome of Hatred: Devices and Message in Blake’s “The Poison Tree”
“The Poison Tree” from William Blake’s Songs of Experience is a poem that tells the story of one who is engulfed by the hatred felt towards a foe. This individual begins with telling the fury they experienced toward a friend who is told told of the protagonist’s anger and in doing so diffused it. On the contrary, the anger towards an enemy remains pent-up and the feeling festers. This resentment grows and grows until it becomes a tree bearing an apple of hatred. The foe steals and eats the apple, is poisoned, and is found lifelessly outstretched beneath the tree of wrath the next morning. The one whose hatred bore the apple is glad to see that his foe has suffered and passed. However, despite the fact that they are content for the moment and that the apple is gone, the tree watered and grown with tears and loathing remains. This hatred is to stay with the character growing and producing more apples for the rest of his life. “The Poison Tree” is suggesting that although hatred is poisonous for the one it is directed at, it causes more suffering for the one who harbors the emotion, an idea that Blake conveys through the use of metaphor, allusion, and language.
First, Blake introduces the metaphor of hatred as a tree in the second stanza of the poem. However, he makes it clear that this tree is atypical, stating “And it grew both day and night.” (9) as well as “I watered it in fears,/ Night & morning with my tears” (5). This tree is different in the sense that it grows both during the day as well as at night, implying that the character holds the tree inside himself as any regular plant does now grow at night when there is no sun. In addition to this, the tree feeds off of the character’s emotions: fear, sorrow, and anger. The tree gives deadly fruit in the form of an apple, but an apple tree never growing only a single apple. Apple trees are gargantuan, producing hundreds of apples, many of which fall to the ground and rot. These fallen apples decompose and give nutrients back to the apple tree, resulting in a never ended cycle of growth. This is the same for anger. The wrath that remains unexpressed nourishes further resentment. With the line “And in the morning glad I see;” (15) Blake tells that the character is pleased to see his foe’s downfall. Still, the tree remains with the character and as its roots continue to grow and gnaw away at his sense of self, he is further infected by destructive feelings.
Similarly, in the line “Till it bore an apple bright.” (10) Blake makes an allusion to the story of Adam and Eve in which Eve is tempted by a serpent to eat the Forbidden Fruit, an apple, which symbolizes human sin. In “The Poison Tree” the apple symbolizes hatred, but in both cases, the tree remains and produces many hating human “apples”. The one apple that is taken greatly affects the foe in Blake’s poem as well as the human race in the story of Adam and Eve, but despite the fact that the apple is gone the tree is completely unaffected. Due to the fact that the metaphorical tree remains firmly rooted in the character’s mind, it is destined to continue poisoning him with feelings of anger and resentment.
The third way in which Blake conveys the message of hatred hurting those who harbor it is through use of language. In the first half of the poem, Blake continuously repeats the word “I” for example “I was angry with my foe:/ I told it not, my wrath did grow.” (3) and “And I watered it in fears,/ Night & morning with my tears:/ And I sunned it with my smiles,/ And with soft deceitful wiles.” (5). In contrast, once the second half of the poem begins Blake shifts the use of “I” to the use of “it” such as when he writes “And it grew both day./ Till it bore an apple bright.” (9) This shift in word use implies that the character has lost power over his anger and that it has begun to control him.
In “The Poison Tree,” William Blake conveys that hatred leads to the downfall not only of the one the disgust is directed towards, but also the one who suffers from this angry passion. He does so through use of metaphor, allusion, and language by relating the growth of anger to the growth of a large apple tree, referencing the tale of Adam and Eve in which Eve dooms mankind to suffer by taking a bite of a poison apple, and by implying that while one has control over their anger at the start it begins to engulf them over time. Blake is trying to tell the reader about the dangers that festering anger poses as it infects everyone who comes into contact with it; indeed, he designed this poem to tell how one destroys himself by boxing himself in with anger.
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.
Choice and Freedom of the Human Spirit
. William Blake, in line with his standing as a Romantic and being both politically and ideologically a libertarian, can be seen in his ‘Songs of Innocence’ to express his views as to the superlative value of the freedom of the human spirit, by presenting a Utopia where individuals are free of oppression, institutionalized religion, and corrupt governmental authorities. Although, Blake can be seen in his ‘Songs of Innocence’ not only to present the importance of the freedom of the human spirit but of his ideas surrounding innocence, the relationship of humans with nature and protesting the abuse of children, too, as part of his conception of an idealized world.
Blake, much like other Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, held children in high esteem due to their innocence, their freedom of the soul and of the imagination: this depiction of children being one way in which Blake champions the freedom of the human spirit within his ‘Songs of Innocence’. In linking imagery of the natural world with that of children, Blake demonstrates his ideas as to the freedom of the human spirit within children in line with his values as a Romantic of the sublimity and freedom within the pastoral world.
In ‘The Ecchoing Green’, a harmony between children and nature can be seen as the children play ‘sports’ ‘on the Ecchoing Green’, with the color symbolism of ‘green’ hinting to nature as a whole rather than just one specific place, and the setting of the poem taking place in ‘Spring’ mirroring the youth of the children themselves, the positive lexical field throughout the poem such as the use of the words ‘merry’ and ‘happy’ giving the overall sense that Blake regards both children and the pastoral world in high regard. Blake can be seen to further compare the freedom and innocence of children with that of nature in ‘Holy Thursday’ through the simile where children can be seen to walk into St Paul’s Cathedral ‘like Thames waters flow’, and too in ‘The Lamb’ where the child narrator says to a lamb ‘I a child, and thou a lamb,/We are called by His name’, the use of the collective pronoun ‘we’ drawing a comparison in the minds of the reader between the lamb, an often religious symbol for innocence and purity, and the child.
As a social and political protest text, throughout ‘The Songs of Innocence’ Blake can be seen to juxtapose the freedom of the human spirit, particularly that of children, with the oppression and suppression faced by children in 18th century England, making the poems a form of criticism against child slavery and the corrupt education system of that time. Moreover, Blake frequently presents innocence as a form of freedom against constraints and self-consciousness leaving those with innocence, such as children, full of trust for those around them, placing them in a state of corruptible fragility and painting innocence as not wholly desirable, as such as state leaves the individual ignorant of the realities of the postlapsarian world and the possibility of future betrayal and exploitation. The vulnerability of innocence can be seen in ‘The Little Boy Lost’ as the boy is left alone and unprotected due to the obvious lack of concern for his care by his father, as ‘no father was there’ for the boy’s guidance, the description of the setting being that ‘the night was dark’ alluding to the boy’s lack of experience and his vulnerability to exploitation because of his innocence. Blake can be seen to further criticize the exploitation of children in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ as he describes how the slavery of children as chimney sweepers keeps them restricted from freedom: the image of ‘coffins’ works as a metaphor for the restrictions of the children and the way they have had their livelihoods taken away from them by the corrupting influence of those in power; the depiction of the children sleeping in ‘soot’ criticizes not only the poor living conditions of the chimney sweepers but perhaps too the attempt of others to oppress them beyond resistance but the ultimate freedom of their spirit as the narrator later goes on to say ‘that the soot cannot spoil your white hair’, lending to the ultimate freedom and goodness at the core of their existence.
In his ‘Songs of Innocence’, Blake can be seen to criticize racial prejudices, holding the belief that in the eyes of God all races are equal and that the physical body is nothing more than a vessel for the metaphysical soul, which is far superior to the body itself. In this way, Blake can be seen to present the view of the soul, or human spirit, as having ultimate freedom whilst the body lends to restriction, and especially in case of racial minorities, suppression of the individual. In ‘The Little Black Boy’, Blake uses the color imagery of black and white to present the black child’s purity and goodness of soul by describing it as ‘white’, putting him on a level of equality with white children; moreover, Blake goes against the views of his contemporaries in a clear form of social protest as he employs the imagery of God’s love being in the form of sunbeams, leading to the accepting of God’s love making the individual become ‘sunburnt’, meaning that black children such as the narrator of the poem are more receptive than others of God’s love. Blake’s views on Christianity are crucial in analyzing his ‘Songs of Innocence’ as a social and political protest text, as during these poems he can be seen to illustrate his views as to the corruption of institutionalized religion and the teachings of contemporary Christianity during the Enlightenment period which taught people to accept present suffering and injustice due to the promise of bliss and the lack of suffering in the afterlife, along with the stressed idea of the ‘fall’ and the ‘fallen’ person who commits sin as a result of their ultimate freedom and the previous sins of Adam and Eve. This idea can be shown in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ as the narrator (and too the other chimney sweeps) is presented as being an innocent, good Christian boy who is encouraged to accept his position of oppression, with the promise that ‘if all do their duty, they need not fear harm’, through which Blake can be seen to clearly criticize the view that those in positions of powerlessness and oppression should accept their mistreatment for there will be equality in the next world, an idea which a Marxist critique would point out as being another way for those higher up the power hierarchy to enforce their laborers, such as the chimney sweepers, to accept their dehumanization as means of production in order to profit the bourgeoisie. Blake, therefore, can be seen to champion the ultimate freedom of the human spirit and attack the way in which institutionalized religion and the ruling classes of the 18th century attempt to oppress and suppress the freedom of the individual.
In his ‘Songs of Innocence’, Blake can be seen to champion the freedom of the human spirit, closely relating the innocence and goodness of children with pastoral imagery in order to demonstrate the overwhelmingly good freedom of the individual, along with using imagery of binding and restrictions in order to show how the human spirit is often suppressed by corrupt institutions and those in power, which he attacks through presenting these as an evil and destructive force which corrupts the sublime utopia laid out in his ‘Songs of Innocence’.
Could to Dare: The Underlying Transition in Blake’s The Tyger
In his iconic poem The Tyger, William Blake directly addresses the paradoxically beautiful yet horrific figure with a question: What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry? This simple question, wondering how and what divine being could possibly create such a creature, serves as a platform for William Blake to examine ideas of divine creation, the relationship between nature and art, how creation reflects upon the creator, and the existence of creatures in nature that are somehow simultaneously beautiful yet utterly destructive. Through these many questions, a deeper transition arises within the poem, by the last line, we find ourselves wonder not just how God could create a creature like the tiger, but how dare he? This transition is not highlighted right away right away—The Tyger is a poem that takes at least two readings, if not more, to be able to grasp what Blake is trying to get at. The aim of this essay, then, is not just to interpret “The Tyger,” but also to demonstrate how the poem unfolds as a process, and how to assess how understanding that process transforms its ultimate meaning.
The Tyger begins by emphasizing the speaker’s direct address to the tiger, through the resounding repetition of “Tyger! Tyger!” and then proceeds to create almost a sensual vision of the tiger, describing it as “burning bright/In the forests of the night,” making the tiger a majestic and mysterious figure, the fiery orange of its fur standing out against the dark night. Then, comes the first, central question of the poem: “What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” On the surface, obviously, the question is of who could create the tiger, but the idea of “fearful symmetry” introduces a creature that is simultaneously beautiful and frightening. Symmetry is something commonly associated with beauty, but the idea that the beauty is “fearful” implies a dark, frightening side, and this balance of beauty and terror is what makes up the tiger. Additionally, this phrase first presents the relationship between art and its creator; presenting an “immortal hand” that is the tiger’s creator and is responsible for the “frame” of the “fearful symmetry” of the creature.
The following five quatrains of the poem all ask questions that build upon the last. The next extrapolates upon the idea of a divine figure creating the tiger, inquiring: In what distant deeps or skies Burnt the fire of thine eyes? The polarization between “deeps” and “skies” marks another reference to the divine, however suggesting that the tiger may have either come from heaven or hell (in other words, a place of beauty or horror), but either way, it’s still created by a divine, immortal figure.
Blake then moves to address both the physicality of the divine figure as well as the vital physical features of the tiger. Consistent with the form of the poem and therefore still phrased as a series of questions, the speaker in the next stanza asks: And what shoulder, & what art, Could twist the sinews of thy heart? This connects the shoulder of the God (representing physical force and calculated strength), with art (representing deliberate and thoughtful creation), implying the measured physical process behind the creation of the tiger. Additionally, the image that arises from ‘twisted sinews’ serves to emphasize the intricacies of God’s creation, and if, to make the tiger’s heart, one had to “twist the sinews,” then the creator’s sense of purpose, concentration, and awareness of his project are stressed even further. This third quatrain concludes with further questions elaborating on God’s creative process, wondering: and when thy heart began to beat, What dread hand? & what dread feet? Which yet again alludes to the physical properties of the creator and specifically connects the God’s hands and feet to the beating heart of the tiger. Additionally, the fact that God’s feet are described as “dread” implies that God’s feet, or any of his physical properties for that matter, are to be greatly feared, because they have the capability to bring to life a creature as terrifying as the tiger.
Building off of the introduction of physicality that the third stanza presented, Blake then proceeds to introduce yet another important image in The Tyger: the Godly figure as a blacksmith. Already, the consistent, pounding rhythm of the poem echoes the steady pounding of a hammer, and in this fourth stanza, the reader is presented with a specific image of a hammer, among other tools a blacksmith would use, asking: What the hammer? what the chain? In what furnace was thy brain? What the anvil? what dread grasp Dare its deadly terrors clasp? The inclusion of tools such as a hammer, a chain, and a furnace, all evoke the Hephaestus-like image of a Godly blacksmith skillfully forging the tiger’s brain in a furnace. The order of the words here are important as well, as they accumulate to produce a shifting image of both the tiger and of God. “Hammer” invokes one thing—a certain deliberateness, force, and precision—whereas adding “chain” edges more towards ideas of entrapment or someone being shackled. Add then the “furnace” and the “brain” and we’re transformed again out of a literal shackling to the fashioning of the tiger’s body out of iron. The addition of “anvil” completes this image, while the opposition of the creator’s “dread grasp” of the tiger’s “deadly terrors” sets up a kind of equation between them—not just because of the association of “dread” and “deadly,” but also because we can’t help but think of the tiger’s claws even as we’re told about the creator’s clasping grasp. Not only does this image further the connection between the physical creation of the tiger and the deliberate physicality of the God, it also stresses how fearful we should be of this God and what he creates. This set of lines also tells us that at one point, God had the tiger’s “deadly terrors” grasped in his hands, suggesting that he was completely in control of them, and indicates that there must have been a conscious decision not to release those terrors, but instead instill them in the tiger. Finally, in accordance with the highlighted deliberateness of the blacksmith’s creation, the fact that the two physical features of the tiger that Blake focused on were the heart and the brain suggest the doubt in and fear of the divine figure that was first implied in his “dread” physical features. One can’t help but question why, if God put so much calculated work into the making of the two most important body parts in the tiger, didn’t he make it a more compassionate, friendly, or less violent animal?
As one can see, Blake is beginning to give us a revolutionary, or at least heavily revised, vision of God. This poem is not just encouraging us to question the idea of our creator, but is also challenging us to revise our notions of who that creator is. So far, Blake has made a concerted effort to show us that whoever created the tiger is not really a believer in the golden rule—they are much darker, mysterious, unapproachable, and entirely less human. As the image of the tiger is constructed, a similar image of God emerges as a parallel as well. The creator becomes unknowable, powerful, unpredictable figure, one that is actually a lot more like the tiger than like us.
This exposition of God’s intentions for putting evil, horrific things in the world is further built upon in the second to last stanza, as the narrator wonders what God’s reaction was after he created the tiger, if he “did smile his work to see?” speculating if he was proud and happy to see his creation, but the way the question is phrased almost sets up the reader to judge and question the creator, inquiring further of the tiger if “he who made the Lamb make thee?” This follow-up question brings the poem back around to an idea that was introduced towards the beginning: the balance of beautiful and terrifying things in the world, but this time also questions the reasoning behind having that balance. This is another question directed at God, meant to question his intentions for putting such terrible things alongside beautiful things in nature, wondering how animals as different as tigers and lambs could come from the same creator. The lamb serves as a symbol of innocence, purity, beauty, and safety, while the tiger represents terror, strength, and fear.
Closing the poem, the final stanza of The Tyger is exactly the same as the opening stanza with the exception of one word: dare. The first stanza reads: Tyger! Tyger! burning bright In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry? While the last stanza declares, Tyger! Tyger! burning bright In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? This calculated substitution of the word “could” to “dare” marks an underlying transformation that has been developing throughout the six quatrains, one that, at the very least, invites readers to fly back to the poem’s beginning to double-check the differences. Discovering it turn invites readers to re-read the poem a second time to construct the narrative between the opening and closing lines. This singular word provokes an automatic flip back to the start of the poem, and reflecting back upon the stanzas yet again incites a much more profound comprehension of the difference in questions that are being asked at the beginning of the poem compared to the end. Though the series of questions that make up The Tyger do seem to seamlessly and intentionally build off of each other, the final question nevertheless catches us by surprise. The narrator begins by wondering how some immortal being could create a creature so beautifully frightening as the tiger, focusing on the physical, artistic creation of the creature. However, by the end, the narrator is inquiring how God would dare to frame the tiger, or any other evils at that, and consciously and deliberately place this terrifying creature in nature, alongside other animals such as the lamb that are completely opposite of the danger that the tiger represents. Blake presents a completely revolutionary vision of God, asking yet another probing question, but this time of the reader: When contemplating the tiger, how dare you hold on to the notion that God is a peaceful, humane, and loving being?
This question of why horrible, evil things exist on our earth, if there’s a God looking down upon us, supposedly with our best interest at heart, is one that is far too existential and overreaching to tackle directly. However, William Blake himself clearly has had some opinions surrounding the existence of God and his intentions, and The Tyger helps Blake raise these ideas in a deeper, more subtle, and creative way. It is an example of a poem that represents far more than what the words on the page denote, and attacks a set of hugely important questions and conclusions about religion that have plagued individuals throughout history.
Blake, William. “The Tyger.” 2015. Ed. Philip Smith. Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Ed. Stanley Appelbaum. New York: Dover, 1992. 37-38. Print.
Blake, William. “Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” The William Blake Archive, The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, Apr. 2007.