Enlargement of Vision: The Power of Dialectical Opposites in William Blake’s Poetry
A defining characteristic of William Blake’s poetry is that his poems are intended to be in conversation with one another. Blake allows his poetry to speak by using dialectically opposite images. Blake prominently uses Christian images in his poems to show different perspectives of faith. Two such examples of dialectically opposite poems are “The Lamb,” featured in “Songs of Innocence,” and “The Tyger,” featured in “Songs of Experience.” “The Lamb” speaks to a child-like faith, whereas “The Tyger” features the questionings of a more experienced person. Blake hinges these two poems on each other to push us past our limitations on faith into a deeper understanding. In using these opposite Christian images, Blake plunges us deep into our imaginations, the only place where we can comprehend a complex God who embodies both the tiger and the lamb. Thus Blake launches his view that only in our imaginations can we fully experience the complexity of the Divine, which is the pathway to Blake’s understanding of salvation.
Blake commonly uses voices of children to embody his poetry. “The Lamb” caters to the understanding of a child and serves as a representation of the simple faith of children. The poem takes on the form of a Bible lesson. An instructor presents questions to a child, calling the child a “little lamb” (1). The poem is written in a question-and-answer form, mimicking the catechisms children are often required to memorize. The catechism form was intended to instruct children on God’s attributes. God is clearly defined in this poem in several ways. First, God is described as a shepherd caring for his flock (3-8). He is also defined as calling “himself a lamb” (14). This represents God as a sacrificial lamb for our sins and also shows that we are made in the image of God. “We are called by his name” (18). Finally, God is described as a “little child,” which represents the God incarnate (16). The poem thus spells out a succinct, clear understanding of the divine that characterizes the innocent faith of children.
Blake mimics the style of catechism to comment on the educational structure of his day. Catechism, the “disciplining of society,” replaced the dialectical style of the Renaissance (Richardson 853). The catechism method was used to enforce strict doctrine on pupils. Blake saw this as inherently dangerous. He valued thinking for oneself and saw systems as limiting. Thus the poem, despite its sweetness, leaves us with a feeling of incompleteness. Imagination may be initially awakened, but it is limited by clear definitions. “The Lamb” does not address the total complexity of the divine. God is defined as “meek and mild,” but God’s power, might, and wrath are not addressed (15). We must be able to see God from a more experienced perspective in order to fully understand Him. Blake saw the dialectical method as the way to this intellectual flexibility, and his poems model this. Therefore, his work “The Lamb” must be understood in relationship to its dialectical opposite, “The Tyger.”
In “The Tyger,” the speaker asks a series of questions about the divine. Unlike the easy faith of a benevolent child, the poem reflects the questions of a person dealing with a mysterious God. The poet faces a central problem: art must in some way reflect its creator. The speaker looks to the tiger, made by God, to ascertain God’s attributes. The tiger, however, contains a “fearful symmetry” (4). The speaker is in awe of the tiger’s elegance but also in fear of its dangerous power. In looking at the tiger, the speaker sees that the world contains both beauty and horror, good and undeniable evil. The speaker wonders how God can reflect both parts of this artistry. The speaker asks, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”(20). We cannot fully comprehend this mystery of God, who calls himself a lamb yet created the tiger and takes on its “fearful symmetry.”
In a further point of contrast to “The Lamb,” in “The Tyger,” the speaker asks questions but receives no answers. The poem is entirely made up of questions, which reflects the gnawing of the human heart and our desire to understand our world and the divine. But the experienced person knows that God cannot be easily understood. “The Tyger” offers no simple definition of the divine. And rather than being offered a blessing at the end of the poem, as we are in “The Lamb” (20), we return to the original question asked at the beginning, “What immortal hand or eye / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” (3-4). This poem pokes and prods its readers rather than providing them with answers. We are left wondering about the nature of God along with the speaker. The poem burns away an easy understanding of God.
This act of corroding easy understanding into deeper meaning is enacted in Blake’s illustrations that accompany his poems. To create his drawings, Blake used the process of relief etching, which requires the use of acid to erode at untreated copper to reveal the design (“William Blake” 113). Blake’s drawings thus enact the purpose of his language. The fire of Blake’s satire erodes the systems we create, a purifying process for Blake. The dialectical interaction of “The Tyger” burns “The Lamb’s” innocence to reveal a deeper level of experience and a larger vision through imagination. In their opposition, these poems sharpen each other and broaden our conception of the divine. God is both beautiful and powerful, merciful and just, benevolent and wrathful. To know God, Blake argues, we must be able to see him as embodying and creating both the lamb and the tiger.
Blake’s chief concern was enlarging the minds of a people whose vision had grown small. As Robert Gleckner writes, “Blake was. . . concerned with imaginatively exposing such blindness. . . and at the same time enlarging his song to encompass the multivalent horror of the state of experience” (375). As an artist, Blake is fascinated with images and their ability to open up new patterns of thinking. Blake’s poetry paints pictures for us that allow us to see anew. Blake’s satiric forms often attack our systematic ways of thinking and etch away at our limitations. In the Romantic period, Blake was concerned with the systems in churches and political spheres emerging around him. Gleckner explains, “What needed to be attacked were not devils, priests, merchants, kings, etc., but man’s own thinking processes, his refusal to acknowledge the growth of his own skull” (379). Through the use of his dialectically opposite images, Blake pushes our skulls, our minds, to grow.
The Christian images in Blake’s poetry challenge us to enlarge our view of God. We cannot put clear labels and definitions on God. This limits God and our understanding of Him. Blake thus used explicitly Christian images in opposition with each other to spark the flame of the deadened church. Blake saw a church that was stuck in doctrine and system (Richardson 856). He dared the church to believe that God is bigger and more complex than we could ever imagine.
Blake viewed the imagination as the place where this enlargement occurs. We cannot comprehend God’s complexity through logic, but we can begin to touch his mystery in our imagination. Our imaginations are not restrained by the systems of society and the doctrines of the church. God is not limited in imagination, and thus he can manifest himself in many different forms, as a child, a lamb, a shepherd, and even as the tiger. We can see God’s richness only in the mystic vision that our imagination provides. For Blake this is a form of salvation. The only truth and hope that the world provides is not in systems or doctrine, but in the power of the imagination, the only place we can really see God.
This view, however, raises questions about traditional Christian doctrine. Blake claims Christian symbols, but he also crafts myths into his poetry. His myth-making verges far away from traditional Christian faith, and his dialectical opposites often border on heresy. Jeffrey Satinover actually calls Blake a heretic and says that Blake and other writers similar to him “were seeking salvation not at the living hands of ‘the Holy one of Israel,’ but by [their] own grasping selves” (11-12). Blake’s work does seem to place more emphasis on our ability than God’s. Blake seems to value imagination more than the saving grace of Christ.
That being said, Blake’s poetry is still important because it provokes us to reconsider our notions of divinity. So often we are tempted to place restrictions on who we believe God to be and whom we believe God calls His own. But Blake reminds us that God is beyond our understanding. He dares us to imagine that God is more loving, more powerful, more awe-inspiring than we could ever comprehend. We read Blake because he challenges our minds to grow to a greater capacity, but we need to be careful not to give Blake higher authority on faith than he deserves. Still, Blake pushes us to examine dialectically opposite views in order to broaden our understanding. Blake shows us that through our questioning, we draw nearer to God. We must confront the tigers in our lives and ask, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”
Blake, William. “The Lamb.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Romantic Period. 9th ed. Ed. Deidre Shauna Lunch and Jack Stillinger New York: Norton, 2012. 120. Print.
—. “The Tyger.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Romantic Period. 9th ed. Ed. Deidre Shauna Lunch and Jack Stillinger New York: Norton, 2012. 129-130. Print.
Gleckner, Robert F. “William Blake and the Human Abstract.” PMLA: Publications Of The Modern Language Association of America 76.4 (1961): 373-379. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 13 Apr. 2016.
Richardson, Alan. “The Politics of Childhood: Wordsworth, Blake, and Catechistic Method.” ELH 56.4 (1989): 853-868. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.
Satinover, Jeffrey. The Empty Self: C.J. Jung and the Transformation of Modern Identity. Boone: Hamewith, 1996. Print.
“William Blake.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Romantic Period. 9th ed. Ed. Deidre Shauna Lunch and Jack Stillinger New York: Norton, 2012. 112-116. Print.
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