Satire and Expression in Blake’s Songs

July 31, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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