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’.
Good and Bad in “The Little Black Boy”
William Blake’s collection of poems, Songs of Innocence, highlights both the positive and negative aspects of the trait of innocence. Many of the poems within the collection feature speakers who find comfort in religious teachings and experiences despite the lives of suffering and turmoil that they are forced to endure. One such poem, “The Little Black Boy,” features a young male speaker of African descent who learns about the system of racial classification from his mother. Many argue that the poem seems far removed from the rest of the Songs of Innocence due to its dealing with a mature subject—racism. Though “The Little Black Boy” wrestles with the heavy topic of racism, it earns its place in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence through its narrative structure and the speaker’s exhibition of traits that signify innocence—hopefulness, naivety, and ignorance.
The poem greatly utilizes its narrative structure to convey innocence. This fact is most evident through the poem’s speaker. No image conveys innocence more clearly than that of a young child who lacks knowledge and experience. He describes the matronly love shown to him by his mother stating, “And, sitting down before the heat of day, / She took me on her lap and kissed me” (Blake 6-7). This image shared by the speaker displays his young age through the close, nurturing relationship he shares with his mother. This relationship signals the speaker’s young age and continued dependence on his mother. He also recalls being “taught…underneath a tree” (Blake 5). The framing of a lesson taught by the child’s mother furthers the image of innocence through the child’s unquestioning faith in his mother’s knowledge. This image relates to other poems throughout the collection that portray a similar relationship between believers and the Christian God. Lastly the speaker’s ability to reach a concrete, although problematic, conclusion by the poem’s end points to a lack of experience. The speaker has yet to reach an age where he can conceptualize the possibility of uncertainty. Overall the poem’s narrative structure plays a major role in rationalizing the poem’s placement in this particular collection.
In addition to the poem’s narrative structure, the themes present throughout the text demonstrate the innocence that the poem portrays. For instance, the youthful speaker’s sense of hopefulness throughout the poem showcases his inexperience. In an effort to explain race and its cultural significance to her son and to provide him with a sense of peace while enduring the injustice that he will definitely face throughout his life as a racial other, his mother tells him of a God who “gives his light, and gives his heat away” so that the “flowers and trees and beasts and men receive / Comfort in morning joy in the noonday” (9-12). This explanation allows for the innocent young boy to feel a sense of comfort in knowing that someone cares for him while growing up in an environment that devalues racial minorities. Additionally, his mother explains that “we are put on earth a little space” (13). This statement allows the speaker to remain hopeful by allowing him to believe that his suffering on earth will be short lived and that he will have an eternal life in heaven without the hardships that he endures due to his race on earth. Later in the poem, the speaker refers to racial identity as a cloud (16). He resolves to learn “the heat to bear” in hopes that in the future “the cloud will vanish” (17-18). In other words, his innocence allows him to remain hopeful that someday he will able to live a life free from the constraints placed upon him due to his race. This sense of hopefulness provides the speaker with a sense of comfort and allows him to remain within the realm of innocence.
Along with the speaker’s hopefulness, his naivety further allows him to be seen as innocent. In the poem, the speaker reaches an understanding about his racial category and the influence it has on his life stating: “And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face / Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.” (15-16). These lines highlight the speaker’s naivety in regards to the racial system by allowing him to believe that it is a simple, insignificant fact of life. He fails to see the major impact that race plays in his life. Furthermore, the speaker makes plans for his afterlife: I’ll shade him [the English child] from the heat till he can bear, To lean in joy upon our fathers knee. And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair, And be like him and he will then love me. (25-28) The little boy’s plan to serve the English child exemplifies his naivety in regards to racial relations. The speaker plans to remain subservient and inferior to his white counterpart even in the space where he stands to gain his freedom from this relationship. Instead of desiring his own personal autonomy and freedom, he longs for the love and approval of the English child. This innocent naivety could prove to be dangerous for the little black boy by causing him to accept his plight as a racial other and minimizing his will to question the arbitrary oppression bestowed upon him due to his racial identity.
The speaker’s naivety towards the implications of his race directly relates to poem’s portrayal of the speaker’s innocence through his ignorance to the injustice of the racial categorization. One of the first illustrations of the child’s ignorance occurs as the second stanza begins with an image of the speaker’s mother teaching him beneath the shade of a tree (5). This image illustrates the fact that the speaker is still in the process of learning about life. He remains ignorant of the many harsh realities of life as a racial other due to the fact that he has not come of age and gained the experience necessary to understand these issues. By the poem’s end, the speaker makes plans involving the English child to “shade him from the heat till he can bear” and “stand and stroke his silver hair” (25, 27). Even in the place where he reaches his freedom he plans to remain in a subservient role. He remains ignorant to the injustice of his arbitrary position of servitude. As in the case of his naivety, his ignorance will possibly eliminate any agency to seek equality within his earthly life.
While many question the placement of “The Little Black Boy” within Songs of Innocence, the poem showcases many of the traits of innocence that stand out throughout the collection. Through its youthful speaker’s unquestioning acceptance of his mother’s teachings the poem narrates the speaker’s hopefulness, naivety, and ignorance in regards to his likely bleak future as a person of African descent in the sixteenth century Western world. Although his mother’s well-intentioned lesson eases his worries and provides him with an incentive to endure his life within an oppressive environment, it will not free him for the implications of his racial identity. Despite the fact that the poem’s main topic—racism—is part of the world of experience, its understanding and rationalization through the mind of a youthful speaker allows it to fit well within Blake’s Songs of Innocence.
The Paradox Transition and the Question of Creation
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.
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).
The Issue of the Welfare of Children in the Poems of William Blake
The most effective poems use a specific everyday issue to portray deeper, timeless ideas. This means that the poet’s contemporary audience can relate to the issue, while future audiences can relate to the idea. William Blake’s poetry is enjoyed by modern readers, even though its subject matter is that of the 18th and 19th century. ‘Songs of Innocence’ and ‘Songs of Experience’ were two of Blake’s poetry collections, each with a poem entitled ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. To successfully convey his themes, Blake uses a problem from his own period that is still relevant today.
One of the greatest issues in Blake’s time was the welfare of children. In his poetry Blake draws on the specific example of the chimney sweeper to draw attention to the broader problem. However, the two ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ poems portray this theme of the mistreatment of children in vastly different ways. The poem from ‘Songs of Innocence’ appears to be a children’s nursery rhyme, with its sing-song anapaestic rhythm and simplistic language. It is from a chimney sweeper’s perspective: “So your chimneys I sweep, & in soot I sleep”, which particularly rouses our pity and makes us think deeper about the issue. The innocent, nursery rhyme feel, in fact, actually hides the satire and irony of what Blake really thinks of the problem: that these children are being taken advantage of. This is not just an historical issue either; there are still huge issues with child labour in countries such as China even today. The second ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ takes a much more blunt approach. The chimney sweep is described as “A little black thing among the snow”, showing it is insignificant and almost inhuman. It is not being cared for, instead is all alone out in the cold. Phrases such as “clothes of death” and “notes of woe” directly criticise the treatment of the children. Despite quite different approaches, Blake is able to successfully address the theme of child welfare by targeting the everyday issue of chimney sweeps as well as exploring more timeless ideas.
Another timeless idea Blake develops is that of the role of adults. It is their responsibility to protect children, but he clearly believes the adults are shirking their duty. The first ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ looks at the role of the father. “My father sold me…” shows that, for whatever reason, the narrator was essentially abandoned by his real father. The narrator tells “little Tom Dacre”, another chimney sweep, “if he’d be a good boy, / He’d have God for his father, & never want joy.” Here God is becoming the father figure for the children. However, the catch is that it is conditional/ they will eventually receive these rewards, but only if they accept the cards they have been dealt and do their duty. Ironically, the adults are meant to be caring for the children, not exploiting them! This exploitation also takes place in the poem from ‘Songs of Experience’. “Because I was happy…They clothed me in the clothes of death, / And taught me to sing the notes of woe.” The boy’s parents punished him by making him a chimney sweep. They forced him to blacken himself up chimneys with a very high probability that he would die, and they taught him how to sweep. This is the very worst form of exploitation, where a child’s own parents use them to earn money. Furthermore, Blake mentions “God and his Priest and King” that are profiting from the sweep’s “misery”. He openly criticises how the establishments of church and government are abusing their duty to care for these innocent children. Right back to Shakespearian times, the role of adults, particularly parents, has been explored in literature such as ‘King Lear’. Even today it is a topical issue with child abuse being a huge problem in New Zealand. Blake has successfully taken an everyday issue that has relevant meaning for all time periods, and explored the theme of adult responsibility.
William Blake’s two ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ poems are the perfect example of taking a contemporary case to portray a timeless idea. Blake developed the themes of child welfare and the duty of adults, that are still so important in the modern age. As a result, both ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ poems are very effective works, appreciated by historical and modern audiences alike.
Blake and Wordsworth Versus Society
Although scholars classify both William Wordsworth and William Blake as “romantic poets”, their writing styles and individual perspectives differ tremendously. Wordsworth, though he is not so blind as to ignore the strife that is prevalent in everyday society, tends to focus on more positive aspects of life, and chooses to dwells in an existence where silver-lined clouds float gently above pansy-blanketed fields. Blake, on the other hand, is more of a realist. He focuses on the many injustices humankind has suffered at the expense of industrialisation and on the malignancy of society.
William Blake’s “The Tyger” clearly shows the speaker’s jaded view of society. “The Tyger” laments the advent of civilisation in the 18th century. The speaker does not necessarily oppose industrialisation in itself; the evil he sees lies in what society has done with new technology. The tiger that Blake drew at the bottom of the poem appears to be caught in a state of wide-eyed wonder and astonishment. He certainly has the potential to wreak havoc, but in this moment of time, he seems to be reluctant to do so. This beautiful creature must be exposed to the proper conditions in order to respond in such a way.
In Blake’s view, technology is the same as the tiger. Machines, engines, and other technological advances are amazing inventions, but they all have the potential to destroy, maim, and kill. Our society provides technology with the opportunity to achieve these disastrous ends. Capitalistic factory owners exploit young children, sometimes resulting in their death, in order to become rich while others starve to death on the streets. Rapid advances in weaponry allow governments to achieve their political ends at the expense of soldier’s blood. The speaker feels that the celestial beings “water’d heaven with their tears” (5.18) because they foresaw the atrocities the industrial revolution would bring to society. He wonders aloud if the people responsible for these inventions knew what the result would be. If so, did this please them? The fact that such base people could exist plagues the speaker in line 19: “Did he smile his work to see?” The speaker goes on to ask, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” (5.20) He finds it hard to believe that a God who could create something as soft and gentle as a lamb could allow the hard, fierce tiger- technology- to be made. Surely, a loving God would prevent a society from advancing so far that it destroys its own sense of humanity. Blake, through “The Tyger”, shows his very real understanding of the destructive elements of human society and civilisation.
Blake continues his commentary on society in the poem “London.” At the beginning of the poem, the speaker wanders freely through London, yet he sees how ordered the city, and even the Thames River, is. Even the people cannot escape from their predetermined course in life: “In every cry of every Man,/In every Infant’s cry of fear,/In every voice, in every ban,/The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.” (2.5-8) These “manacles” are formed in the mind; social status is merely an abstract construction. Society has declared that one born into poverty will remain in that state for the rest of his or her life. Even if this is true, who is to say that material wealth determines happiness and fullness of life? The speaker of “London” seems to be challenging these social traditions, and the society that creates such imposing restraints.
While Blake sees society as an unfeeling monster that devours the downy innocents caught in its path, Wordsworth feels that society only ruins those who allow themselves to be jaded. In “Resolution and Independence”, the speaker starts the day full of life and youthful exuberance: “The pleasant season did my heart employ:/My old remembrances went from me wholly;/And all the ways of men, so vain and melancholy.” (3.19-21) While the speaker is happy at the moment, he realises that mankind cannot, or refuses to, escape from an existence marred by “vain and melancholy.” In stanza four, he begins to fear that with joy comes the realisation of all one has to lose; that for every mountain in life, there must also exist a valley that is at least as low as the mountain is high. However, this has not always been the case. The speaker reveals that “My whole life I have lived in pleasant thought/As if life’s business were a summer mood;/As if all needful things would come unsought/To genial faith, still rich in genial good.” (6.36-39) In other words, up until this present moment in time, he believed that in order to achieve happiness, all one had to do was have faith and lead a life of integrity, honesty and selflessness. Now, though, through exposure to society, he is filled with doubt and despair: “We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;/ But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.” (7.48-49)
Another aspect of society that the speaker exposes in “Resolution and Independence” is the artificiality of everyday communication. Though he feels depressed, he approaches the leech-gatherer and says, “This morning gives us promise of a glorious day.” (12.84) He could just be trying to give the leech-gatherer, or even himself, hope of a pleasant afternoon. However, more probably, he is revealing that society dictates what one can and cannot say to people in different situations. This holds true even today, as a co-worker asks “How are you?”, and gets the expected reply: “Fine.” Does the person who asks actually care about how the other person is feeling? Will the other person still respond the same way if he or she is suicidal? Wordsworth recognised that people rarely feel free to speak what is actually on their minds, and brings this to the forefront in his ridiculous statement to the leech-gatherer.
Wordsworth compares the old man to huge stone on top of a cliff (9.57-60). Seen in this light, the leech-gatherer is no longer just another person in society, but a marvel that is somehow connected to the universe. Though he seems to have no reason to rejoice in life, he somehow seems content and fulfilled. He knows he possesses a significant role on earth, no matter how menial, and refuses to allow the despair and hopelessness of others affect him. Blake would undoubtedly see the old man and lament on the brutal society that allowed an elderly gentleman to arrive in such a state of apparent despondency. Wordsworth, however, sees an opportunity in the leech-gatherer. Instead of despairing over the old man he sees, the speaker instead chooses to learn what he can from him. Wordsworth sees what few others would: hope in an old man searching for leeches, wisdom in someone from the bottom of the economic and social ladder. The only people who are tainted by the evils of society are those who allow themselves to be.
Blake and Wordsworth seem to agree that society is damaging. What they differ on though, is to what extent society has the ability with which to deplete the vitality of the body, the hope of the soul, and the sharpness of the mind. Blake sees nothing redeeming whatsoever in society, and would likely want the existing social system to be removed and replaced with one that is not so rife with social disparities and strife. Wordsworth, on the other hand, realises that injustices do exist, but also believes that life is what one makes of it. Certainly, it is impossible to never experience sorrow, but it is also possible for members of all social classes to lead a fulfilling life complete with hope, joy, wisdom, and contentment. The choice, in Wordsworth’s view at least, lies in the conscience decisions made by every man, woman and child.
- Blake, William. “London.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H.
- Abrams et al. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000. 56-57.
- Blake, William. “The Tyger.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H.
- Abrams et al. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000. 54.
- Wordsworth, William. “Resolution and Independence.” The Norton Anthology of English
- Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams et al. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000. 280-284.
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.