The Poems of William Blake
The Concepts of Mercy, Pity and Love
William Blake, as a libertarian and political writer concerned with Romantic values concerning the freedom of the human spirit and liberty, wrote his ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ in an attempt to attack the corrupt political systems and institutions around at the time he was writing during the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment; in his songs, Blake proposes rebellion against such systems, alongside setting up his ideal of a Utopia within his ‘Songs of Innocence’, with the virtues of ‘mercy, pity, peace and love’ found in ‘The Divine Image’ aptly summarizing the image of Blake’s Utopia, with such virtues being clearly nowhere to be found in the corrupt society which Blake describes in his ‘Songs of Experience’ in such poems as ‘London’ and ‘Holy Thursday’.
One subject of Blake’s social and political protest within his ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ is that of the church, as although he himself was a Christian, he can be seen to attack the twisted version of religion which holds destructive ideologies that exploit and damage the vulnerable, ignoring the traditional values of charity and mercy and instead allowing racism and the suffering of children, as see in ‘The Little Black Boy’ and ‘Holy Thursday’ respectively. In ‘The Divine Image’, the speaker (presumably either the voice of Blake or voicing Blake’s thoughts), personifies the virtues of ‘Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love’ and states that these are ‘God, our Father dear’, suggesting that God Himself is the personification of these virtues, that these qualities are what we should be aspiring to within humanity, creating a link between God and humankind as all prayers to ‘Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love’ should be directed not just to God but to ‘the human form divine’; through this, Blake can be seen to stress the superlative importance of these qualities of heart within humankind and protesting against those religious followers who act hypocritically in allowing children such as those in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ or ‘Holy Thursday’ to suffer whilst those in power and the hierarchical church allow for such vast inequalities within society.
Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’ can be seen to set up a Utopia, much like More’s, where the virtues of mercy, pity, peace and love are abundant and then shown to be lacking in the world described in his ‘Songs of Experience’ which criticize and protest against the corrupt authorities of his day, setting up a proposal for rebellion to establish a more idealized, liberated state. In ‘The Shepherd’, for example, the character of the shepherd can be interpreted as a God-like figure as he acts in a similar way towards his sheep as the omnibenevolent God of the Bible can be seen to act towards humankind, showing love towards his sheep as ‘his tongue shall be filled with praise’ suggesting that he takes a caring and supportive role over his ‘sweet lot’, along with ‘peace’ taking a foreground in the poem as the shepherd is described as ‘watchful’ towards his sheep ‘while they are in peace,/For they know when their shepherd is nigh’, alluding to a relationship between the shepherd and his sheep where the sheep place faith in the shepherd as their protector and loving father figure: much like the loving image of God stressed by Blake. In this way, therefore, the virtues of mercy, pity, peace and love as outlined in ‘The Divine Image’ can be seen to play a role in Blake’s description of a Utopian society and his ideal image of religion as a loving, united front between humankind and God, which in turns lends to set up his proposal for rebellion in the ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’.
Blake can further be seen to explore the virtues of mercy, pity, peace and love in his ‘Songs of Innocence’ poem ‘The Little Black Boy’, where a black child who has experienced racial prejudice describes a conversation with his mother who assures him that his ‘soul is white’ and that he will one day go to heaven where God will show him ‘love’. In the poem, the child’s mother can be seen to show him all four qualities of mercy, pity, peace and love as outlined in ‘The Divine Image’ as the boy describes how ‘she took me on her lap and kissed me’ demonstrating a loving, maternal act which shows pity towards the boy who feels as though he is ‘bereaved of light’, alluding to God’s love as ‘light’ as an image is used often by Blake to refer to the presence of God, suggesting that the boy feels as though God doesn’t love him in the same was and the English children around him who are conversely depicted as ‘angels’, and therefore automatically shown love by God. The little boy’s mother then goes on to loving assure the boy that he is just as, if not more so, worthy of God’s love as other children as he has leant to ‘bear the beams of love’ which have caused ‘the black bodies and this sunburnt face’, working to instill a sense of peace of mind within the child who before being told this showed distress at being set apart from the ‘English child’ and seen by those as ‘bereaved of light’. The depiction of God presented by Blake through the loving voice of the mother in the poem shows these virtues further, as He is quoted as saying ‘come out from the grove, my love and care,/And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice’, with the image of a ‘grove’ as a small wood suggesting to a confined, shaded area where perhaps the oppressed such as the ‘little black boy’ metaphorically reside as they are cast away from the rest of society, and the kind tone paired with the imperative of ‘come out’ showing the caring, father-like nature of God as he lovingly, whilst showing pity towards those who have been residing n the ‘grove’, invites the oppressed to ‘like lambs rejoice’ iin his ‘love and care’, the image of the ‘lamb’ being one found throughout Blake’s poetry as a symbol of innocence and purity. With racial prejudice being a focus of Blake’s social and political protest, therefore, the depiction of God as a loving father figure who shows pity and love in particular to all without regard of their race as demonstrated in ‘The Little Black Boy’, acts as a form of protest against the conservative, racist views held by the government of his time and acts as a proposal for rebellion against those who perceive white children as superior to black children as in the eyes of God, Blake illustrates, individuals of all races are perceived as equal and are equally as worthy as one another of His love.
Mercy, pity, peace and love can further be seen as apt descriptions of Blake’s proposal for his rebellion when looking at his own political ideologies, alongside his depictions of these virtues within his poetry. Blake was politically a radical libertarian, who admired Thomas Paine and can be seen to draw from his ideas concerning the advocation for equal political rights and the attacking of hierarchical government and monarchy as laid out in his 1790’s novel ‘The Rights of Man’, and to an extent the attacking of the contradictory claims held by the Christian Church in his ‘The Age of Reason’. These virtues are pertinent throughout his ‘Songs of Innocence’, through, for instance, the narrator of ‘A Dream’ who describes how ‘Pitying, I dropped a tear’, explicitly demonstrating pity towards the emmet who had ‘lost its way’ and in ‘On Another’s Sorrow’ where empathy for those with a ‘falling tear’ is presented as the universal human reaction; mercy as shown in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ as the oppressed chimney sweep narrator describes how ‘if all do their duty, they need not fear harm’; peace in ‘The Echoing Green’ between the pastoral landscape, the children playing on the green and the elderly folk watching them play; and love shown in a plethora of the songs, one example being in ‘The Little Boy Found’ where a form of caring, parental love is shown both by the presumed figure of God who leads the boy to his mother who shows distress in the loss of her son as ‘her little boy weeping sought’.
In his ‘Songs of Experience’, however, Blake’s attention to these virtues as a proposal for rebellion turns towards the cruel injustice that he sees coming from the state and the corrupt authorities of his time, repeatedly using the word ‘chartered’ in ‘London’ as to depict the restrictive nature of the city and using the device of rhetorical question a plethora of times throughout his songs in order to address the reader directly and invite them to question the nature of the state of the time- asking in ‘Holy Thursday’ whether it is a ‘holy thing to see’ for innocent, impoverish children to be treated poorly and ‘reduc’d to misery’, emotively showing the lack of mercy, pity, love and peace which is in fact shown by the state and the Church towards those who are in need. It can be argued, therefore, that ‘mercy, pity, peace and love’ do not make for a fully apt description of Blake’s proposal for rebellion in his ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’, but are used to set up an ideal, imagined state before showing the lack of such virtues present in England during the 1800s, with his proposal for rebellion lying moreso in his vivid descriptions of oppression, restriction, and the cruel treatment of those in need in order to encourage his audience to rebel against such a system, by way of peaceful protest as suggested in his chosen form of protest being through his written songs, his values as a Romantic, and through how he stopped supporting the French Revolution despite its aims aligning with his belief due to the fact that it involved violence and the turn of revolutionaries to tyrannical oppressors themselves.
The four qualities of mercy, pity, peace and love as laid out in the ‘Songs of Innocence’ poem ‘The Divine Image’ can be seen, to an extent, to be an apt description of Blake’s proposal for rebellion, as he suggests through his featuring these virtues in his depiction of a Utopia in the ‘Songs of Innocence’ that such are the qualities he believes all of humankind should exhibit and that, as seen in ‘The Divine Image’ we should all ‘pray’ to these qualities within both humankind and God whilst forming a united brotherhood with such values at the foreground: however, it could be argued that Blake’s proposal for rebellion more lies in his exploration of oppression of the vulnerable by those in power and his ethos of anti-clericism and anti-establishment illuminating to the audience his proposal for rebellion more vividly than his initial description of an idealized state in his ‘Songs of Innocence’.
Locke, Blake, and Wordsworth: Understanding Experience
William Blake, in his work There Is No Natural Religion, and William Wordsworth, in his poem 1799 Prelude, challenge John Locke’s understanding of the nature of the self by offering alternative theories as to the ways in which we as humans perceive and interpret our experiences. Blake—and to a lesser extent Wordsworth—refutes Locke in his work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, offering contrasting opinions as to how the self is formed. Locke’s view of the self is rooted in his belief that humans are born into the world as tabula rasa, a blank slate. He believes formation of the self is passive and empirical in nature, consequent of tangible experience. This suggests that as we perceive our experiences with the objective facts of the material world, our mind is passively constructing complex ideas from our perceptions, resulting in a reality that is limited to what has been directly experienced. Wordsworth and Blake oppose Locke’s tenet of a passive mind, asserting a mutually exclusive theory: the presence of an active mind. Through the presence of an active mind, a creative imagination emerges, therefore allowing perceptions beyond Locke’s empirical worldview to appear. Thus, while Wordsworth and Blake agree with Locke in that as humans we perceive and experience the material world, both assert that our ability to perceive extends far beyond what our passive Lockean self would allow, instead declaring an intrinsically creative imagination.
Locke’s idea that Man comes into the world as “tabula rasa” was born from the study of the scientific empirical method of discovery, which is in contrast to the doctrine of theologians who professed that Man, held an innate knowledge. Locke professes that knowledge is formed from sensation and reflection. Sensations are what we experience in the material world; Locke writes that the mind comes to be furnished via “experience,” which is defined as the past or current experiences of one’s life (Locke 21). The act of reflection is the way in which the mind perceives these experiences. Locke states, “These two, I say viz– external, material things, as the objects of SENSATION, and the operations of our own minds within, as the objects of REFLECTION, are, to me, the only originals, from whence all our ideas take their beginnings” (22). Thus, Locke believes our experiences, and therefore ones sensations can only be derived from objective, material things. It is from these raw sensations where simple ideas such as “yellow, white, heat, cold, soft, hard” originate, which our mind then reflects upon via its own operations: “perception, thinking, doubting, believing” (21). This pattern of sensation and reflection is how Locke understands the identity of the self to be shaped. Hence, there can exist only objective realties, as our mind is only able to perceive the raw, actual facts of our surroundings. And so it can be said that according to Locke’s beliefs, the nature of self is inherently empirical as our perceptions, and therefore our sensations are limited to objective, material things.
William Wordsworth and William Blake, however, hold perceptions of the self which contrast with Locke’s. They did not understand the mind solely as a collection of experiences; instead, they sought to understand what innate forces shaped the way in which one interprets the world. Both Wordsworth and Blake directly challenge the notion of a passive mind by arguing the presence of an active mind, which allows for the emergence of a creative-imagination. Wordsworth does not disagree that we perceive through our senses; however, he chooses to introduce an external force, which he argues is the source of our active mind. Wordsworth writes: Blessed the infant babe—… Doth gather passion from his mother’s eye Such feeling pass into his torpid life Like an awakening breeze, and hence his mind… Is prompt and watchful, eager to combine In one appearance all the elements (Wordsworth, 20) Wordsworth suggests our life to be “torpid,” or passive before the mother instills the intangible “passion” within us. It is from this passion that his sense of self and his sense of knowledge are formed through nature. And thus, nature nurtured his “eager” and creative mind as a child.
Furthering these ideas, Wordsworth demonstrates enhanced perception through a reflection upon his youth. Rowing in a stolen rowboat, Wordsworth personifies nature, as he believes nature is both encouraging him to take the boat and rebuking him for doing so: “lead by them,” he steals a boat in “an act of stealth / And troubled pleasure…” (94). The “troubled pleasure” are the feelings he felt from acting on “The passions that build up our human soul” (95). Wordsworth believed that nature punished him for this transgression when a “creature” appeared: “As if with voluntary power instinct / [it] Upreared its head” and “with purpose of its own / And measured motion like a living thing / strode after me” (94-95). This personification of nature demonstrates that Wordsworth interprets his surroundings through creative imagination. While Locke’s perception of this event would have been limited to objective facts, Wordsworth is able to perceive the cliff with “undetermined sense,” resulting in the operations of his mind working in “unknown modes of being” (95). Therefore, his mind is allowed to construct complex ideas beyond what Locke believes possible. Even though what Wordsworth perceives the “creature” to be is seemingly unclear, it appears to exceed material facts of the outside world. In fact, he uses this event to provide an example of subjectivity resulting from creative imaginations. That is, an “eager” mind allows humans to perceive beyond what is purely “material” and, as a result, colors experiences based upon the past. Applying Locke’s ideas, it is seen that as the mind experiences, its reflection upon these perceptions is tainted by the creative imagination. Therefore, as the self encounters new experiences, our perceptions of them will be influenced by our past. Considering the text directly, however, Wordsworth suggests that he is recognizing nature’s attempts at demonstrating a sense of morality to him: a sense of right and wrong. Therefore, it is through the use of an external figure, the mother, that Wordsworth is able to demonstrate an awakening of the creative imaginations within us, which allows us to see and perceive beyond what is “material” or fact. And thus yielding from Wordsworth’s beliefs are realities that become increasingly subjective through our attainment of experiences.
In a manner similar to Wordsworth’s, Blake challenges the idea of a passive mind by proclaiming the presence of a “Prophetic and Poetic character” within us. Blake goes further in challenging Locke when he proclaims, “Man’s perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception” (Blake 89). Furthermore, within Blake’s writing, he makes two distinctions: “the ratio of all” and “the Infinite” (89). “The ratio of all” is synonymous with Locke, as it represents the ratio of our past experiences, or rather the ratio of what is material or objective. Thus “the Infinite” represents the perceptions that extend beyond “the ratio of all.” More precisely however, “the Infinite” is perceived by the active mind through the creative imagination in order to combine ideas beyond what would be possible in a Lockean world. Blake verifies this by writing, “he who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only”(89). Therefore, if one is only able to see “the Ratio” then he is limited to his empirical self and thus his reality becomes increasingly objective. However, if one is able to see the infinite then one must be able to experience or perceive the infinite, allowing the “Prophetic and Poetic character” within him to perceive beyond what is objective and material. This ability results in an increasingly subjective reality. Unlike Wordsworth—who wrote that our passion, creative imagination and active mind were direct results of an external force, the mother—Blake believes “the Poetic or Prophetic character” is inherently within us (89). This is demonstrated as he writes that if it were not for such a character, the “Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, & stand still unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again”(89). Thus, he argues that without this character, our perceptions would become limited to “the ratio of all things” and would begin to “repeat the same dull round,” or the passive nature of Locke’s sensation and reflection. Therefore, through our ability to see the infinite rather than solely the ratio, Blake demonstrates how our creative imagination—the Prophetic and Poetic character—perceives beyond the objective facts of the material world, thus resulting in the coloring of our experiences and subjective realities.
Wordsworth and Blake both challenge Locke’s view of a passive, objective self by asserting the presence of a creative and active self. Wordsworth demonstrates this through an active imagination and passion, while Blake asserts an inborn spirit that is more than our collective experiences. As a result, the ability to perceive beyond what would be possible according to Locke creates a heterogeneous human experience among all beings. This subjectivity allows for a diversity of beliefs and allows us to assign significance or meaning to an experience that is uniquely our own. The ability to find meaning in an event based upon past experiences, and thereby grow the mind, allows for a self to emerge greater than the sum of its individual parts.
Analysis Of William Blake’s Poem The Tiger
Christians believe God did not create evil nor is he to be blamed for the evil in the world. “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7 NIV). When God created humanity, everyone was given the choice to follow him or not. Although if one choses to neglect God and insist on going their own, God will let one face the consequences until they repent and turn back to him. William Blake’s poem “The Tiger” is a short poem that explores the struggles between the innocence and the evil of the world, which was created by God, through carefully chosen imagery, suspense and rhetorical questions that ponder the complexity of the creator.
From the beginning of “The Tiger”, Blake attracts the reader with an image of a mighty, ferocious creature lurking in a mysterious environment that many may fear. Christians believe that God is associated with being the creator of all the universe and beyond; He is above all. Some may define fear of God as “respecting” him and believers of God have no reason to be fearful of him. Blake leads with chanting as “Tiger! Tiger!” as it signifies the importance of the creature being discussed, as well as ending the poem with repetition in the sixth stanza “Tiger! Tiger!”. Blake then guides the poem with how unpredictable nature can be through fire that is passionate and wild “Burning bright”, “burnt the fire of thine eyes”. The creator of this majestic animal begins to mold the dangerous yet fearful creature as “twist the sinews”. Blake’s poem also introduces an imagery of comparing the creator of the tiger to that of a blacksmith. Blacksmithing can be seen in Blake’s poem as the art of crafting objects with master attention to the details of beauty and danger, by using “fearful symmetry”. Some tools of a blacksmith may include “hammer…. “chain”, “furnace” and “anvil”, which can enhance the strength and danger of the tiger’s creation. With Blake using imagery, the reader is able to draw on their own experiences with their unique senses.
Curiosity continually builds in “The Tiger” from astonishment to terror with trying to understand how the creator could create such a frightening creature. Blake reveals glimpses of the creator’s body parts as “immortal hand or eye”, “shoulder”, “heart…. feet”. These glimpses add power and fearfulness of the image. Throughout the poem, Blake is intrigued with the unknown of the creator and wants to understand the supernatural power this creator has which brings up questions of “dare he aspire”, “what hand dare seize the fire” and “what dread hand”. Then he wonders if the creator is happy with his design as “Did he smile his work to see?”. Blake uses imagery throughout the poem to contribute to the sensory of experiences with constant reflection of danger and beauty.
The poem progressively leads to asking troubling questions about the creator and his qualities. As the complexity of the creator is assessed, Blake questions the existence of God and his works of art; What kind of God created this beautiful, yet dangerous creature? Was this a risk taking or rebellious God? “On what wings dare he aspire”. Did the molding of the tiger lead to the fear of the creature, “could twist the sinews of thy heart” and “what dread hand”. How could one create something that is capable of such destruction? Ultimately, what was the reason for this creation and was God the one who created evil or was it someone else? As Blake’s poem comes to an end, he starts to come to terms with the creator that is forgiving and disciplined by changing the repeated chant “could frame thy fearful symmetry” to “dare frame thy fearful symmetry”.
William Blake’s poem “The Tiger” uses a rhythmic pattern to bring each stanza together while also creating a common pattern. Throughout Blake’s poem imagery, suspense and rhetorical questions are used to articulate the differences between the good and evil of the world, and the complexity of the creator. As Christians, we believe that all things good and evil are created by God. “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16 NIV).
Songs of innocence and experience
Songs of Innocence and Experience is a collection of poems by William Blake, published in 1789. Together, Blake explores ‘the two contrary states of the human soul,’ as he had put in the subtitle. Despite its simple images of children, flowers, animals, and an off-putting “happy” vibe, the Songs are troubling and reflect Blake’s deeply held personal and spiritual beliefs. These poems collocate the innocence of childhood against the world of adulthood, a world full of repression and corruption. Many of the Songs are written in pairs, thus the problems are seen in two different lenses: one through the innocence of childhood, and then the experience of adulthood.
Starting with Introduction, there are many possible interpretations of this poem. Considering that the Songs were written during the Industrial Revolution, and many children were subjected to abuse and child labor, it’s very possible that the child on the cloud is the piper’s muse, who helps him understand that he must be the voice of those who cannot speak for themselves: the deceased, the lower class, the children, and those more who were struggling due to the Industrial Revolution. The line “Piper sit thee down and write / In a book that all may read” suggests that the piper sat down and wrote about the impurities in the world; furthermore, the ambiguity of the last stanza “And I made a rural pen / And I stained the water clear” can easily be interpreted as the piper “spilling” kindness into the water, which is the impurities that treat children cruelly, until the water becomes clear. Staining the water clear is a paradox, as water should already initially be clear, however in this case, the water was full of impurities, and staining it clear with kindness makes sense. Moreover, the connotations of the adjective ‘clear’ further reinforces the idea of purity that the poet is trying to convey. In the final lines of the poem, “And I wrote my happy songs / Every child may joy to hear”, Blake wishes for a world that speaks only of purity and warmth, giving joy to children who are unable to speak for themselves and being their advocate.
Blake’s two The Chimney Sweeper poems are intriguing in a way that it gives the readers a sense of the two ‘contrary states’ Blake wanted to depict. in his collection. The speaker in Innocence is a young boy who was sold into the chimney sweeping business by his father as soon as his mother died. The word ‘weep’ rhymes with the word “sweep”, hence it can be surmised that the child was sold into the business before he was even old enough to talk. This fact adds up to the theory that the narrator was much too young to understand the situation he finds himself in, which further amplifies the daunting state innocence may bring about. The child in Innocence may have also heard the word “sweep” as “weep”, which also suggests that there is little difference in how children see things, as they do not understand the world they are living in yet. Blake portrays the chimney sweeper in Experience, now an adult, as someone who finally recognizes the position he was put in, and criticizes society for it. Blake once again plays around with the similar sounding “sweep” and “weep” (A little black thing among the snow: / Crying “‘weep, weep” in notes of woe!), possibly showing that the chimney sweeper, through experience and knowledge, acknowledges that his life was forced upon him and is now able to differentiate between sweep and weep.
The constant appearance and implications of the church may also have something to do with Blake’s belief that societal problems are linked to religious faith. In Innocence, he mentions that Tom Darce has a dream which eerily exposes the idea that suffering and misery in this life are rewarded by salvation and peace in the afterlife (“So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm”). However, in Experience, the speaker blames and directs his anger toward the church for forcing him to live a life he didn’t want and [the church] profiting from it. In the last line, the speaker says, “They think they have done me no injury: / And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King, Who make up a heaven of our misery”, implying that ‘heaven’ is built upon the suffering of others. The idea that peace is built upon misery is a tactic used by the church and those in power to manipulate those with little to no political influence.
Overall, William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience is a rather fascinating read that exposes the cruelties of the world that is inherently connected to spiritual problems. Although the modern world may not be as cruel as the past anymore, it still holds the idea that true happiness may only be found through pain and suffering.
Understanding the “Introduction” in “Songs of Innocence and of 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.
- Blake, 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 <http://www.getty.edu/art/collections/objects/o3506.html>.
Main Ideas in William Blake’s Works
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 Symbolism and Meaning of Jerusalem Compared to England’s History
“Jerusalem,” by William Blake, is a contemplative portrayal of England’s development during the time period in question. This poem is concerned with the theme of England’s loss of innocence; this is important because it shows that development is not, as people often perceive, beneficial for a country; rather, it destroys nature and corrupts humanity. Through the use of descriptive imagery, Blake conveys the “wicked” transformation nature and humans experience due to modernization. The use of anaphora and rhetorical questions both heightens the theme of lost innocence and reinforces the poet’s desire to regain this innocence. In addition, Blake’s skillful use of figurative language enhances the reader’s comprehension of the poem.
Throughout the poem, Blake uses vivid imagery to describe England’s loss of innocence due to industrial development. Blake begins the poem by painting images of nature’s innocence in the reader’s mind, using words such as “mountains green” (2) and “pleasant pasture” (4). He portrays nature as peaceful and beautiful: as it always has been, and as it is always meant to be. In the second stanza, however, the images of nature’s innocence are lost and are replaced by images of “clouded hills” (6) and “dark satanic mills” (8). These images suggest that England’s development causes the innocence of nature to become lost. Nature’s untouched beauty is tainted by industrialization; hills which were once green become clouded, and mills that were once providers become satanic. Blake makes clever use of imagery to show the effects of England’s development on nature.
Moreover, Blake uses imagery to portray humans losing their innocence. Prior to England’s development people led a simple life, the life of “the holy lamb of God” (3). People led a simple life resembling that of Jesus Christ, where there was no greed, jealousy, or corruption. This innocence, however, was lost as a consequence of England’s industrial development. People took on the characteristics of “clouded hills” (6).Those who previously led an honest life became corrupted by greed and power. Their innocence became clouded by sins, and was eventually lost.
Blake also uses rhetorical questions to convey the theme of lost innocence. Blake begins the poem with four rhetorical questions, which he uses to illustrate the poem’s main theme: “And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green?”(1-2). By questioning whether England’s mountains were green in the past, Blake evokes the theme of lost innocence in the reader’s mind. The reader learns that England did have green mountains in the past, but now they have been transformed into “clouded hills” with “dark satanic mills” as a result of industrialization. Blake uses this question to accentuate nature’s loss of innocence.
In addition, Blake uses anaphora to emphasize his determination to regain England’s innocence:
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrow of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire! (9-12)
To reinforce Blake’s determination, strength, and desire to regain innocence, the speaker makes skilful use of anaphora. Through this type of repetition the poem rhetorically enacts Blake’s sincere wish to regain innocence. The use of repetition also serves to mimic Blake’s relentless effort and desire to regain innocence at any cost.
Blake uses figurative language to give the reader a more concrete understanding of the poem’s major theme. In the first stanza, Blake makes clever use of synecdoche to reinforce England’s innocence prior to its development. This is evident when Blake says, “the holy lamb of god/on England’s pleasant pastures seen” (3-4). Here, Blake uses the idea of a shepherd god to signify Jesus Christ. Christ is a symbol of justice, humanity, and innocence. Accordingly, placing Christ on English soil recalls the innocence of English citizens before England transformed into an industrial country. The idea of Jesus seen in England suggests the spiritual connection that England enjoyed prior to industrialization. However, during industrialization England lost its spiritual connection; thus, people begin to commit sins and lose their innocence.
Blake also uses personification to express his determination to create Jerusalem, a representation of the old England, which embodies both natural and human innocence:
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land. (13-16)
In line 14, Blake personifies his sword to enhance the meaning of the poem. Blake insists he will not let England’s loss of innocence paralyze him; he will continue to fight, and will bring back innocence “in England’s green and pleasant land.”
William Blake’s “Jerusalem” conveys the effects that industrial development had on England. The central theme of the poem is England’s loss of innocence. This theme is of great importance because people usually overlook the horrific consequences of development, such as destruction of nature and corruption of humanity. Through the use of imagery, Blake reinforces the wicked transformation that nature and humanity undergo as a consequence of modernization. Through the use of rhetorical questions and anaphora, Blake both enlightens the theme of lost innocence and accentuates his desire to regain this innocence. Furthermore, through cunning use of figurative language Blake enhances the reader’s comprehension of the poem. Through this poem Blake not only expresses his determination to regain the loss of innocence, but he also endeavors to make the reader conscious of it. In other words, Blake writes this poem to enlighten his reader about the adverse effects of industrialization. Blake not only writes about England’s present, but also about the future adverse effects of development. Given the current world situation, one must admit that there is some validity to Blake’s concerns.
The Fall of Paradise and Man as Portrayed by William Blake
The motif of the fall of man is quite often used in poems and prose alike. More specifically, William Blake uses the motif of the fall of man in his poem The Book of Thel as well as in his poem The Shepherd. Blake, in this case, uses this motif in some of his poems to incite different feelings through allusions to Adam and Eve. The Book of Thel presents to us a world very close to Adam and Eve’s, a pastoral paradise in which man and nature are bonded in a form of mystical unity. Thel is able to speak to the nature around her, and gain knowledge of the world, much like Eve gained knowledge after eating the forbidden fruit. This world, although seemingly perfect, traps Thel and is a catalyst for her limitation of herself. Much like The Book of Thel, The Shepherd presents a pastoral paradise as well, in which there is a Shepherd (an allusion to God) watching over his sheep (God’s people). Creating a contrast with Thel’s situation, though, Blake presents this world as one in which the sheep, or people, are given free choice and independence because of their knowledge of God watching over them, an effect of the fall of man. In using this motif of the fall of man, Blake both critiques the way in which people limit themselves based on different aspects of life (such as mortality) that are an effect of the Fall, and praises the independence that people have based on the Fall and the consequent independence from God.
The Book of Thel uses the motif of the fall of man to suggest a critique of the way in which people limit themselves and their experiences based, firstly by bringing together the religious and the secular. The first sign of this motif resides in the pastoral paradise in which Thel is living; this paradise mimics the Garden of Eden which Adam and Eve inhabited. Secondly, Thel’s innocence and lack of experience are what most closely resemble Adam and Eve’s own relationship with the world around them. Thel wonders aloud, “…why fades the lotus of the water?” (Blake, pg. 45). Her innocence parallels Adam and Eve’s, yet unlike Eve’s, Thel’s fears are eventually what cause her to limit herself, thereby critiquing the way in which the fall of man influences some people. Thel is conveyed as fearing that no one “shall find [her] place” when she dies and that “when [she] complain[s], no one hears [her] voice” (Blake, pg. 45). Blake presents these complaints as normal, especially after the affect God that had on humans after the Fall. It is only when Thel goes to her own grave site, and flees after she hears a voice, that we consider the limits that Thel has put upon herself (Blake, pg. 49). Rather than seeing past mortality, she runs to it. Furthermore, she is said to have “Fled back unhindered till she came into the vales of Har,” implying that she is once again hindered (possibly by her own devices) in Har (Blake, 49). In presenting this scene, which is coupled with the allusions to the story of Adam and Eve, Blake depicts the motif of the fall of man as a critique of the limitations that some put on themselves, in fear of God’s wrath. In the same way that Adam and Eve fell from God, Thel too falls from grace in continually limiting and questioning herself.
Moreover, Blake combines allusions to religion with mystical allusions to nature to show the way in which earthly mortality becomes akin to a prison for some. In The Book of Thel, the unity between man and nature before the allusion to death and the broken bond seems to mimic the theme of the fall of man almost exactly. Blake depicts the Clouds, Lilies, and Clay as helping Thel in her quest to gain knowledge of mortality and of her purpose; her innocence allows her to gain the trust of nature around her, bringing to mind the unity that Eve had with nature. It is only once she gains knowledge and learns of death that she falls from God—or perhaps from the world’s—good graces, recalling the fall of man after Eve’s having gained knowledge. We can see in the poem that God’s punishments for Eve and Thel, and the fall of man as a motif, relate to the larger question of whether God has created a mortal prison for some or has instead created the joy of life. Blake seems to think the latter, and Blake is apparently critiquing the prison that people make for themselves. In his poetry, he uses religion, nature, and imagination to convey this stance. When Thel fears that no one would notice her gone, the Cloud assures her that when he passes away, “It is to tenfold life, to love, to peace, and raptures holy,” to which Thel immediately responds that she is “not like thee” (Blake, 47). In saying this, Thel begins to break the bonds between herself and nature—or, rather, between herself and life—in a manner that recalls Eve’s disruption when she gained knowledge of the apple, deceit, the Devil, and life. Thel uses her own questions about life, which parallel Eve’s questioning, to imprison herself—much as others do because of questions of their own mortality. It is only at the end, though, that Blake’s critiques come forth. “Why cannot the Ear be closed to its own destruction?” Blake inquires, through “the voice of sorrow” (Blake, 49). Here, Blake asks why people are incapable of forgetting about their own mortality, why they must question everything and limit themselves based on it. He seems to arrive at this critique of humans based on their fear of God’s wrath, and conveys his sentiments through alluding to the fall of man, among other things.
The motif of the fall of man is used more subtly in the poem The Shepherd; rather than alluding to the pain that separation from God causes, Blake chooses to explore the positive side of the Fall, showing God’s punishment as a blessing rather than a curse. Although God’s punishment due to the fall of man is often looked on as a curse, Blake seems to be explaining here that the penchant to be good to others and not sin comes from our knowledge of God’s ever-present power. “He is watchful while they are in peace, / For they know when their Shepherd is nigh,” Blake says of the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd (Blake, pg. 2). Although this line appear to suggest that the shepherd is only watchful when the sheep are in peace, it could also convey a different meaning entirely. Since the sheep know when their “Shepherd is nigh,” Blake seems to be suggesting that the sheep are peaceful (read: well-behaved) whenever their Shepherd—God—is near. If God is ever-present and omnipotent, they are assumed to always be impelled to be good. Rather than God forcing his people to be good citizens and follow his word, he gives them the choice to do so, although under the assumption that God is always watching and will punish them if necessary. Blake highlights this blessing of God’s influence by noting that God’s tongue is constantly “filled with praise” (Blake, 2). Not only does Blake say that people are compelled to be good because of the Fall, but he also says that they are rewarded in doing so.
The Shepherd begs the question of whether Blake is conveying that people feel forced to do good, or whether they are willingly compelled to do good because of God’s influence. Blake seems to think the latter, that God has given people free will, and that they are only slightly coerced. To articulate this idea, Blake juxtaposes the fall of man motif with the idea that God follows his people, rather than forcing them to follow him. “How sweet the Shepherd’s sweet lot! / From the morn to the evening he strays,” Blake says of God and his people—here symbolized as a Shepherd and his sheep, respectively (Blake, pg. 2). Rather than depicting God as the force which governs his people to follow him, Blake suggests that God is the one who follows his people. This concept is the exact opposite of what the Bible says about his relationship with humans. Blake seems to say that the fall of man allowed people to have independence from God, rather than limiting their freedom of choice. God’s praise comes from his being a follower. In being “watchful” of his sheep when he “follow[s] his sheep all the day,” he is able to see the good that his people do for him (Blake, pg. 2). Beyond this independence is also a love of God that Blake shows through the effect of the fall of man. To this end, Blake writes that, “He is watchful while they are in peace, / For they know when their Shepherd is nigh” (Blake, pg. 2). Although the poem suggests, in part, that the “sheep” are compelled to be peaceful and do good for others, it also seems to suggest a reading which means that “He is watchful when they are in peace because they know when their shepherd is near.” Because God is always present and always watching, the sheep rely on their shepherd for peacefulness. Rather than the fall of man being a complete punishment, people are eased by the knowledge that God is watching, allowing free choice, and praising them. People rely on God to bring them peace, and to compel them to be peaceful as well, Blake suggests. The fall, then, is shown to be a blessing once more.
Blake presents two similar worlds, both pastoral paradises, yet very different in the outcome of the peoples’ actions inside of them. Thel’s world is one in which nature and man’s unity is broken by her knowledge of death, and by her subsequent limitations on herself. The Shepherd’s world, though, presents conditions in which the sheep are given free choice and the ability to freely do good in the world because of God’s influence, rather than because they are forced to do good. In looking at these two poems, and their implications, we can raise the question of whether Blake is correct in both senses. Are people limited because of their fear of death and God’s wrath, as well as sometimes compelled to do good because of his teachings? Perhaps both conceptions are true, in which case we are given a more accurate view of life instead.
Poetry Review: “The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake
In the literary writing “The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake, I assume that the reader could pick out several themes that the author placed in the poem. Throughout the poem Mr. Blake uses the tone, speaker, and diction to develop and support that theme. The theme I was able to derive was the child’s lack of innocence. Normally we see children as very innocent beings and are honest about their feelings and actions.
The children in this poem have had no childhood. They are forced to wake up before the sun comes up and clean and sweep the chimneys. The kids have been working at such a young age that they didn’t have a chance to be children and play like other kids. That alone states that their innocence has been taken from them. They are required to live a “black” life, covered in soot and are susceptible to a young death and short life. They run, jump, and play only in their dreams. That sets the theme as lack of innocence.
The tone in Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” has an irony that masks his innovative commitment. For example, in one part of this poem, there is an animated tone as the dream of the boy is described and the lines lightly rhyme,
“And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.”(13-16)
The speaker of this poem is a young boy who was enslaved into the chimney-sweeping business when his mother died. His father sold him “while yet my tongue Could scarcely cry” (2, 3). He tells the story of another chimney sweeper, Tom Dacre, who cried when his hair was shaved to prevent soot from discoloring it.
The diction of this poem has simple, childlike diction. This is because of the child’s narration of the poem. In Blake’s writing, God is referred to in terms of praise, as a child is taught to believe that God will forever be his father. The narrator in the poem seems happy and calm. He is oblivious to the fact that they live as slaves and are doomed to die young before their time. The adolescent diction of the poem is a product of the innocence of the speakers.
In conclusion, we have discussed a great poem by William Blake. Unfortunately, at the time this was written there was a lot of slavery and child laborers. Blake did a great job of using the tone, speaker, and diction to set the theme.
The Paradox Between Man and Society
The concept of universal human suffering permeates through William Blake’s dolorous poem “London,” which depicts a city of causalities fallen to their own psychological and ideological demoralization. Though the poem is set in the London of Blake’s time, his use of symbolic characters throughout the piece and anaphoric use of the term “in every” in the first and second stanzas indicate that Blake’s backdrop of London is a connotative representation of all the world’s cities, whose inhabitants represent all the world’s people. In this sense, “London” is a poem about the universal human condition. It would be impossible to paraphrase “London” into prose, for its poetic meaning derives from the ambiguity of connotative language and from the necessity of unresolved paradox. The poem’s beauty and power result from concrete and specific images of London that evoke the ecumenical idea that man is suspended between the society he lives in and his own indeterminate nature. Man is helpless; hovering between these diametric poles, he cannot even escape his own distress. Blake’s theme unfolds through two central paradoxes in the poem—the fundamental and obvious paradox between man and society, and the underlying and enigmatic paradox between man and nature.
The paradox between man and society is evident in Blake’s portrayal of social and political institutions as the purveyors of mankind’s philosophical angst. In fact, this despair is the consequence of the impenetrable paradox that arises when Man creates the very institutions that enslave him. The human characters in “London”—the Man, Infant, Chimney-sweeper, Soldier, and Harlot—simultaneously embody humanity’s cruel establishments as well as its individual experiences. For instance, Blake’s line “In every Infant’s cry of fear” means both a fear of perils lurking in “each charter’d street” and of the loss of vernal innocence. “And the hapless Soldier’s sigh/ Runs in blood down Palace walls” has the dual meaning of society living under a tradition of war and death, as well as the danger of submitting to vicious custom with nothing more than a “sigh,” because war’s destruction results equally from compliance and combat. These symbolic characters are deeply conflicted, because Blake indicates that they are shackled by their acquiescence to their own brutal oppressors.
Paradox arises from the irrational, unexplainable propensity of mankind to surrender. In “London,” people become willing parts of a corrupt system, evidenced immediately in the opening stanza: “I wander thro’ each charter’d street/ Near where the charter’d Thames does flow/ And mark in every face I meet/ Marks of weakness, marks of woe.” The manmade streets are chartered, decreed and created by men, but so is the River Thames. How can a river be chartered? In altering his natural state by constructing society, man has somehow repressed his own nature; the Thames, a natural river, is chartered because it is bound by the city, not free. Blake first emphases the “weakness” of man, and afterward the “woe,” implying that human suffering arises first out of human weakness, that there is a causal relationship. “The mind-forg’d manacles” reinforce this notion of self-enslavement—and paradox, for man cannot be mutually beholden to society and to himself, when the demands of both seem so innately incongruous. Yet somehow, within the framework of the poem, Blake’s contradictory suggestions gain conviction and generate a singular, universal concept.
“London” consists of four short stanzas of four lines each, but a secondary paradox runs through the poem, nestled within the poem’s primary paradox, that shows startling complexity for so concise a work. At its crudest interpretation, “London” can be construed as social criticism, but Blake’s combination of connotative language and paradox lends the deeper emotive meaning essential to the realm of art. It is critical that the reader avoid intentional fallacy, since Blake’s positions on the societal problems of his day are irrelevant in the reading of “London”; the poem is poetic because it combines social criticism with seemingly contradictory ideas that force the reader to work through networks of paradox. If the obvious paradox in “London” is between man and society, then the latent one is between man and nature. Blake focuses on the divergences between human biology and emotion through the metaphors of sex and disease—both recurring motifs in the poem—and intertwines biological particulars of sex and disease with the intangible emotive corollaries of the human heart.
Sexuality and disease are coterminous entities in “London,” and Blake portrays lasciviousness as both a social and personality disorder. The final stanza of the poem is telling: “But most thro’ midnight streets I hear/ How the youthful Harlot’s curse/ Blasts the new born Infant’s tear/ And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.” Here, Blake refers both to infant blindness as the result of venereal disease, proliferated by prostitution, and jealousy as a sickness of the heart, proliferated by infidelity. The disease imagery of “blights,” “plagues,” and “hearse”—death being the ultimate product of disease—is used to emphasize the epidemic of carnality. The covenant of marriage is inevitably doomed when prostitution institutionalizes sex as a profane act, invalidating the sanctity of monogamous human relationships, and Blake alludes to this in the second stanza as well, in the lines “In every cry of every Man/ in every Infant’s cry of fear.”
These moral lessons, however, seem almost contradictory to the pervasive theme of human freedom advocated throughout the poem, for marriage, even if sacrosanct, is another binding social convention. Does prostitution exist because monogamy is oppressive and unnatural or does sexual temptation defame the purity of love? “London” is thought provoking because it is never readily apparent whether human nature is innately virtuous or corrupt—and if people are naturally corrupt, then they cannot possibly be blamed for the folly and vice they are biologically predestined to encompass. Blake depicts concupiscence as destructive, but he does not make it clear whether it is natural or unnatural; he leaves the integrity of human nature in suspension and paradox. The tone of the second and fourth stanzas, therefore, is inconsistent with that of the first and third. Blake’s two central paradoxes in London are even paradoxical to one another, and his poem is so forged by and of paradox that these paradoxes create a language of poetry, so that meaning cannot be divorced from the poem’s form.
Blake’s language is developed as the poem develops, so that the poem, at its end, becomes an independent verbal artifact—or as Cleanth Brooks puts it, “a well-wrought urn”—that can be stated in no other language than the poem itself. As Brooks writes in his essay, “The Language of Paradox”:
I am interested rather in our seeing that the paradoxes spring from the very nature of the poet’s language: it is a language in which the connotations play as great a part as the denotations…The poet, within limits, has to make up his language as he goes.
Blake takes the entire length of “London” to formulate a language capable of carving meaning out of his paradox: man is both a slave to society and to himself. The uncertainty of Blake’s poetic language is in itself a concrete universal, an account of the desperate entanglement of human fate and accountability that can only be expressed through the divine irrational. Though “London” is a work of paradox, the poem is in no way incomplete; it is, by its conclusion, a work of art upon in and of itself.