Freedom and Oppression
Blake’s protest against oppression of the human spirit is a clear and assertive one, yet his methods to establish it are subtly employed. The collection of poems establishes, as Blake intended, two “contrary visions” of freedom and oppression. Although this innocent freedom may have its limitations, Blake’s use of antithetical images nonetheless brings into harsh light, and condemns, the suffering felt under oppression. Furthermore, natural imagery is crucial to Blake’s protest in endorsing free human spirit, whilst characterizing oppression as a violation and suppression of man’s natural being. Finally, Blake’s interesting appropriation of a wide range of voices is significant to his subversion of convention, as well as in demonstrating the extensive impact of oppression. Thus, by presenting the consequences and unnaturalness of oppression, emphasized by the contrasting image of freedom, Blake devises his protest.
To begin, it is important to explore both how and why Blake portrays both freedom and oppression. Arguably, through showing the joys of free human spirit, Blake is able to emphasize the consequences of its oppression and thus heighten his protest against this. In ‘Songs of Innocence’, the reader sees an image of freedom. For example, in ‘the Echoing Green’, Blake makes use of bird imagery, “skylark and thrush”, “birds of the bush”, “like birds in their nest”, symbolic of freedom, as well as carefree language, “happy”, “merry”, “cheerful”, “play”, and most explicitly, “laugh away care”. A similar sense of freedom is evoked in ‘Infant Joy’, in which the simplistic repetition, “pretty joy! Sweet joy, but two days old. Sweet joy I call thee”, portrays a state of simple happiness in freedom. The structure of the poems in ‘Songs of Innocence’ is also crucial to portraying the joy Blake believes is found in freedom; for example, ‘Spring’, in its three syllable lines, has a rhythmic jollity to it, in which one line seems to trip onto the next and chime with happy implication. Similarly, in ‘the Echoing Green’, the five syllable lines, where English poetry traditionally uses four syllable lines, again causes the poem to almost rhythmically ‘skip’.
Significantly juxtaposing this presentation of joyful freedom is Blake’s portrayal of misery, suffering and imprisonment in oppression. In contrast to the free images of flight in ‘Songs of Innocence’, Blake utilizes claustrophobic, imprisoning language in ‘Songs of Experience’: in ‘London’, man is described as having “mind-forged manacles” and, in the ‘Introduction’ to Experience, Earth is “prisoned”, restricted by “this heavy chain”. These claustrophobic and restrictive images are emphasized further by the imagery of suffering, most particularly in ‘London’. The repetition of “cry” in ‘London’, which somberly echoes in the poem with other harrowing imagery, “sigh”, “blight”, evokes an immense sense of misery. Further, Blake’s strategic use of rhythm in ‘London’, “in every cry of every man” and “in every voice, in every ban”, creates heavy stresses and an exhausted sound to the poem. Blake formulates a draining of color from ‘Songs of Innocence’ to ‘Songs of Experience’. The poems shift from “leaves so green” (‘the Blossom’) and “children walking in red, and blue, and green” (‘Holy Thursday’) to “grey despair”, “hoar” (‘Earth’s Answer’) and “black gowns” (‘the Garden of Love’). Thus, whilst freedom appears vivid and exciting, oppression of the human spirit is portrayed as lifeless and bleak. Also significant is the direct comparison Blake encourages between ‘Infant Joy’ and ‘Infant Sorrow’. Blake’s repetition of “infant” (in the title), as well as his similar structures of the poems (both have only two stanzas), indicate his intention for the reader to directly compare freedom and oppression. Whilst we see an image of freedom and happiness in ‘Infant Joy’, ‘Infant Sorrow’ presents misery and imprisonment, “my mother groaned, my father wept”, as well as the restrictive imagery of “swaddling bands” and “bound”. Blake also uses contrasting sound in the two poems; the lines in ‘Infant Joy’ generally end with open and soft sounds, “thee” (four times), “while”, “smile”, “name”, “am”, whereas, in ‘Infant Sorrow’, the sound is closed and abrasive, “wept”, “leapt”, “loud”, “best”, “breast”. Blake intends for us to look at these two poems, one an image of freedom of the human spirit and one of its oppression, and clearly identify the joy of freedom, in contrast to the condemnable misery of oppression. Overall, only by drawing this vision of free human spirit and contrasting it so blatantly with ‘Songs of Experience’ is Blake able to demonstrate the extent of oppression. His protest is achieved by showing what freedom looks like; forcing the reader to realize, and appall at, the oppressive society of Blake’s time.
Furthermore, Blake’s use, specifically, of natural imagery, which is applied contrastingly in ‘Songs of Innocence’ and ‘Songs of Experience’, is instrumental in protesting against the oppression of the human spirit. In ‘Songs of Innocence’, freedom of the human spirit (which I have already established is present in the ‘Innocence’ poems) and the joy this creates are closely associated with nature. Blake’s natural settings place joy and freedom in a natural context; in the ‘Introduction’ to Innocence, for example, the speaker is “piping down the valleys wild”, in ‘the Echoing Green’, “sitting under the oak” and in ‘Laughing Song’, the speaker sits in “the meadows”. In contrast, Blake opts for an urban setting in ‘London’, referencing the suppression of nature in its commercialization, “the chartered Thames”. Further, in ‘Songs of Innocence’, Blake’s bird imagery both implies freedom and naturalness, as the free, spirited speakers are describes as “like birds in their nest” (‘the Echoing Green’). Blake’s natural imagery in ‘Songs of Innocence’ is flourishing and fertile, as suggested by the very title of the poem ‘Spring’ and its celebration of new life, “merrily, merrily to welcome in the year”. Arguably also, the anthropomorphic imagery used to describe nature, “the painted birds laugh” (‘Laughing Song’) and “the happy skies” (‘the Echoing Green’) blurs the distinction between nature and man, symbolic of man’s greater naturalness in this free human spirit.
In contrast, in ‘Songs of Experience’, the oppression of the human spirit is described with suppressed natural images of night and winter, such as “cold”, the “darkness dread and drear” (‘Earth’s Answer’), in which the alliterative plosives establish an unpleasant sound, and “midnight streets” (‘London’). This shift from the naturalness of free human spirit and the unnaturalness of its oppression culminate in the poems, ‘the Garden of Love’ and ‘the Schoolboy’. In ‘the Garden of Love’, we see the shift from “sweet flowers” to “graves”, “tombstones”, and the more sinister image of nature, “briars”. The echo, here, of Christ’s ‘Crown of Thorns’ (the Crucifixion story) in “briars” is hugely significant, arguably implying that the Church’s own oppression of mankind is reminiscent of Christ’s suffering and oppression. Similarly, in ‘the Schoolboy’, Blake symbolizes the oppression of a child’s free spirit through the images of oppressed nature, “how can the bird that is born for joy sit in a cage and sing?”. The schoolboy, forced into restrictive rote learning and robbed of his free human spirit, is symbolized by the “tender plants stripped of their joy” and “blossoms blown away”. Therefore, it is clear that Blake casts the freedom of human spirit as man’s natural state through his pure and bright images of nature and natural setting. In contrast, the oppression of the human spirit is symbolized with suppressed images of the natural world; thus Blake condemns oppression of the human spirit as unnatural and builds his protest further through that.
Finally, Blake’s wide use of voice is significant to his protest. Blake employs the voices of children, newborn babies, the Earth and, in ‘London’, numerous characters. It is first important to examine Blake’s use of youthful voices. For example, in the ‘Introduction’ to Innocence, the child speaker is vocal and imperative, “Pipe a song about a Lamb!”, “Piper, pipe that song again”. Crucially, the adult narrative voice is responsive to the child, “so I piped with merry cheer”, in which the use of “so” presents the adult’s action as a direct reaction to the child’s request. In ‘Infant Joy’, the baby is equally vocal and, again, in ‘Spring’. It is important to note that Blake wrote in a society which held the attitude that children should have their natural instincts of sexual desire, joy and curiosity repressed (as ‘the Schoolboy’ shows), thus Blake’s vocalization of children (at a time when they ought to be ‘seen and not heard’) is, in itself, a protest against oppression of the human spirit. Blake’s use of voice is also instrumental in demonstrating the extensive and wide impacts of oppression, which range from misery of just a newborn baby (‘Infant Sorrow’), “struggling in my father’s hands”, to the suffering of the Earth (‘Earth’s Answer’), “freeze my bones around”. Additionally, Blake’s reference to many characters in ‘London’, “the chimney-sweeper’s cry”, “the hapless’ soldier’s sigh”, “youthful harlot’s curse”, “new-born infant’s tear”, heightens the sense of consequences of oppression, as the reader is overwhelmed by the number of contrasting figures in suffering. Thus, Blake’s voices in ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ are significant both in their being a protest in themselves (the vocalisation of children) and in further protesting against the extensive suffering that transpires under oppression.
To conclude, Blake’s formulation of his protest against the oppression of human spirit is skillful and constructed in many ways, most particularly in his envisioning of two parallel states of freedom and restriction. Blake’s natural imagery, as well as the emphasis on the many who suffer from oppression, vehemently condemns the restriction of human spirit. Moreover, Blake protests against oppression through his revelation to the reader of how true freedom appears, the joys and wonders that result from a free human spirit, and the juxtaposition of this with the horrific image of oppressed human spirit. Through these ‘contrary visions’, Blake creates his protest.
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