William Blake Study Guide
Download William Blake Study Guide...
The Songs of Innocence and of Experience William Blake CONTENTS A Key to Understanding Blake & his Poetry Form & Language
THE POEMS The Ecchoing Green London The Lamb The Tyger The Blossom The Sick Rose The Chimney Sweeper (Innocence) The Chimney Sweeper (Experience) A Cradle Song The Clod & The Pebble The Divine Image The Human Abstract Nurse’s Song (Innocence) Nurse’s Song (Experience) Infant Joy Infant Sorrow
04 04 06 06 09 09
14 15 16 17 18 19
William Blake – His Life & Ideas
Songs of Innocence Songs of Experience Songs of Innocence and of Experience
10 11 12 12
A Blake Tutorial Poems The Tyger (36) – The Lamb (37) – A Poison Tree (38) The Human Abstract (39) – London (40)
Writing about Poetry
AS LEVEL ENGLISH LITERATURE AQA Specification B
INNOCENCE & EXPERIENCE Shewing two contrary states of the human soul The Key to Understanding William Blake & his Poetry
William Blake believed that all human beings are born into a state of Innocence. By Innocence he means that infants and children share in the divine, that they are in fact part of God, and that they see with the eyes of God. For the child, everything around them is beautiful and true. This Innocence is not the same as Ignorance, i.e. being too young to know that the world can be a dark, threatening place. Their Innocence is more like the innocence of Adam and Eve before they ate of the forbidden fruit and were expelled from the Garden of Eden. As we grow up and leave childhood childhood behind behind us, Experience Experience teaches us that the world not only has beauty and truth, but also has a darker side, and that people can be tainted tainted with Hate, Envy, Jealousy, Jealousy, Fear, Poverty, Poverty, Despair. This for Blake is the state of Experience. Blake felt that we all, as adults, must accept that the world of Experience exists, but that we can get back to the Vision of Innocence that we had in our childhood. How are we to do this? We rega regain in our our Inno Innoce cenc ncee by the the use use of our our Imag Imagin inat atio ion. n. We use use our our Creat Creativ ivee Imagination to remember what the World of Innocence is like, and that is the world we should try to live in. All our actions and behaviour and thoughts should reflect the kind of Innocence we want to regain – we should be kind and helpful and gracious and loving loving and considerate. considerate. And if we are artists we may recreate recreate the Visions Visions of Innocence in paint, or in words, or in sculpture, or in any of the artistic media we can. William Blake is not being naïve. His Songs of Experience show how familiar he was with the harsh realties of life, but his Songs of Innocence show the kind of world we shou should ld be stru strugg ggli ling ng to buil build d if we want want to expe experi rien ence ce the the joys joys of Inno Innocen cence ce Regained. This central idea – Innocence, Innocence, Experience, Experience, and Innocence Innocence Regained – is reflected in Blake’s poetry, and it is enlightening to study them in pairs, for example Infant Joy & Infant Sorrow. We should not see the poems as mirror opposites, but as the interplay of light and dark that is woven into the fabric of human life and its affairs. When studying the poems, keep this question before you at all times:
To what extent do these poems reflect William Blake’s vision of the worlds of Innocence and Experience?
FORM & LANGUAGE Clearly we will need some knowledge of the form and language of Blake’s poems, and and this this will will be a main main focu focuss of our our prep prepar arat atio ion n duri during ng the the weeks weeks befo before re the the examination. Remember, however, that your Study Guide has detailed comments on the form and language of all the poems we are required to study. Make this a focus of your study. However, the following comments apply, more or less, to all of Blake’s poetry and should be committed to memory though not word for word in this form: In the combined volume there are forty-six poems in all. All of them are short, some very short indeed. All are written in an apparently simple style, and the most usual verse form is the rhymed quatrain (stanza of four lines). Blake is unique among major poets in English before the 20 th century in not using the most convention line, the pentameter (five-foot line) that was common to writers from Shakespeare and Milton through to Pope and beyond. The lines Blake uses in the Songs are shorter, typically the tetrameter (four-foot line), as he found it in the popular forms of his day (hymns and nursery rhymes, and also the ballad, which had a very significant influence on Blake. (The ballad is a traditional poem or song telling a tale in simple, colloquial language.) The verses that expres expresss these these ideas ideas are simple simple,, musica musicall and tender. tender. Metres Metres are borrowed from ballads, from singing games, and from Mother Goose rhymes; images from meadows, pastures and playgrounds. The decorations are delicate, painted in light colours, and filled with flowers and leafy vines, dancing children, lambs, and tiny angels. Five years after the appearance of Songs of Innocence , Blake completed another small series of plates of decorated verses, using the same simple metres, but in an entirely different mood. These he engraved and bound together with the earlier poems in an enlarged enlarged volume volume entitled, entitled, Songs of Innocence and Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. To Blake, the world of Experience is a world of disillusionment where the child-like soul of Innocence Innocence meets the harshness of nature and the cruelty of Man, and of Man’s institutions. Many of these songs are bitter; the decorations are often bleak, dark, filled with dead trees, wilting flowers, dead or dying figures, graves and tombstones. One of the most appropriate ways in which to organise the poems is in pairs, pairs refle reflecti cting ng the the dual duality ity at the the heart heart of Blak Blake’s e’s thin thinki king ng,, Blak Blake’ e’ss conc concep epti tion on of Innocence and Experience, always keeping in mind that one needs the other as Night needs Day, and that one will cast light, even as the other casts shadows.
THE POEMS THE ECHOING GREEN
Note the shifting perspectives in the poem – Blake, the children, the old folk. The Echoing Green is the world of innocence similar to that in the first Nurse’s Song. This is a worl world d in rhyt rhythm hm with with the the seas season ons. s. Note Note how how the the old old folk folk appr approv ovee of and and encourage the children at play; there is none of the bitter jealousy of the second Nurse’s Song. The old folk are nostalgic for the innocent world of their own childhood but they accept rather than resent its loss. Note the pathos in the lines “Such such were the joys When we all, girls and boys, In our youth time were seen On the Ecchoing Green.” The little ones do not end their sport until the sun sets. They are in tune, in harmony with the rhythms of nature just as much as the skylark and the thrush at play in the bushes. We can also hear echoes of ‘The Blossom’ where Blake makes it clear we must have hearts large enough to hold, embrace and encompass ALL of human experience – the sorrows and the joys. Some readers might interpret the final two lines – “And sport no more seen On the Darkening Green” – as the encroachment of the world of experience upon the world of innocence, but it may be taken simply as the village green darkening as the sun sets. FORM: The poem is in two stanzas of 10 lines each with a rhyme scheme of rhymed couplets. The language is simple and suitable as children’s verse. The rhythm is musical with 2 or 3 stresses to each line. The poem is in lyrical mood.
London is one of Blake’s most powerful poems. It is a devastating critique of a city where almost every inhabitant inhabitant is suppressed suppressed and exploited exploited by those in authority authority and power. As Blake, in the person of the narrator, narr ator, wanders the streets of London he observes and catal catalog ogue uess thos thosee who who have have been been crush crushed ed by the the gree greed d and and self selfis ishn hnes esss of the the Establishment; in their faces he observes the signs and symbols of weakness and woe – poverty and destitution, both spiritual and material. Even the River Thames itself has been polluted by the greed and selfishness that surround it. In the the crie criess of men, men, wome women n and and chil childr dren en he hear hearss the the terro terrors rs of pove povert rty y and and exploitation. London is a spiritual wasteland where the young chimney sweepers are force forced d into into slav slaver ery, y, sold soldie iers rs spil spilll thei theirr bloo blood d to prot protec ectt the the rich, rich, weal wealth thy y and and aristocratic, but worst of all young women, almost girls, are driven into prostitution where disease, the harlots’ curse, destroys not only their lives but the lives of their
new born infants. infants. The carriage carriage that that should should bear them them into into the joys of marriag marriagee becomes a hearse transporting them to disease and death. To recap: The narrator narrator wanders wanders through through London and finds even the streets and the river suffering under political oppression. In everyone he passes, he sees signs of misery and moral weakness. In fact, the narrator doesn't just see the misery of the sweep, the soldier, the prostitute or the baby, he hears it in their cries, sighs, curses and tears. He visualises the cry of the chimney-sweep covering the churches like a pall draped over a coffin, and the last breath of the dying soldier running like blood down the walls of the royal palace. In the depths of night the 'Harlot's curse' (venereal disease) blinds the new-born baby and turns love itself into a disease-infested shortcut to death. THE POWER OF THE POEM
'London' 'London' is one of Blake's most powerful political political poems. poems. That power is achieved achieved in good part through repetition. Notice how 'charter'd' appears twice, 'mark' three times and 'every' a total of seven times. This - coupled with the repeated use of 'and' - gives an atmosphere of relentless oppression to the poem. 'London' singles out the Church and the King for their part in this oppression: the Church is a dark force of evil, while the soldier's blood is a direct indictment of the uncaring King who sent him off to die. Though the poem is rich in symbolic meaning, Blake's victims are also real people: the 'Harlot's curse' is no tame euphemism for syphilis, but the shout of a 'youthful' pro prost stit itut utee agai agains nstt the the socie society ty which which abus abuses es her. her. But But what what are the the 'mind-forg'd manacles'? manacles'? They They may may repr repres esen entt the the deep deeply ly ingr ingrain ained ed resp respec ectt for for trad tradit itio ion n and and instit instituti utions ons that that stoppe stopped d the people people of London London from from follow following ing the exampl examplee of revolutionary Paris and overthrowing their oppressors in Church and State. After all, 'Lon 'Londo don' n' was was publ publis ishe hed d in 1793 1793,, four four year yearss after after the the outb outbrea reak k of the the Fren French ch Revolution and the same year as the execution of Louis XVI, the French King. London is the city from Hell. Blake uses the word “charter’d” ironically. A charter is a deed guaranteeing certain rights and freedoms; the poor of Blake’s London had none of these. The new-born child, traditionally a symbol symbol of hope and the promise of a new start, is here the child of an adolescent prostitute, blighted by venereal disease, and every marriage, in this city, is associated with Death (the hearse) rather than Life. Blake provides a bitter and harsh view of the city that is characterised in terms of repression, regimentation, disease, hypocrisy and death. London is dominated by the spirit of “Reason”, the “mind-forged manacles” that bind and restrain the natural spirit (sym (symbo boli lise sed d in the the regi regime mente nted d stre street etss and and the the “cha “chart rter' er'd d Tham Thames es”) ”),, and and the the hypocritical Establishment (“church” and “palace”) does nothing to prevent or speak out against injustice (symbolised in the cries of the young chimney sweepers, with reference here to the political agitation from the 1780s onwards to improve their working conditions of children ). The poem has 4 stanzas, and each stanza is a rhymed quatrain (stanza of 4 lines). The lines are in tetrameter tetrameter (four stressed stressed feet per line). This This was a popular popular form of the verse of the day and was often used in hymns, hymns, nursery rhymes rhymes and ballads. ballads. Notice
how the terrible subject matter plays against the child-like simplicity of the verse form. Notice also how repetition is the key to the power of this poem. It is like a drum beat or the sound of marching feet – every face, every Man, every Infants cry – marks of weakness, marks of woe. The rhythm is insistent and relentless; this is the City of Night from which there is no escape; this is the world of Experience in stone and flesh. THE LAMB
The narrator of the poem, Blake, addresses the lamb as the simplest, most innocent and most tender of God’s creatures. In the first stanza, Blake paints a scene of tranquil, tranquil, calm, serene, serene, rural beauty beauty and bliss. This is the world of Innocence Innocence realised (made real) in the natural world; note the contrast between this world that of London, city of night. Although the poem is couched in the simplest of forms and language, Blake is asking a profoundly serious question: “Little Lamb, WHO made thee?” and by extension Blake is asking WHO made, created all of us? Blake gives the answer in the second stanza in the form of a childish puzzle. It was another Lamb who made thee/us, but this Lamb is the Son of God, the Lamb who taketh away the sins of the world, the Lamb who restores us to our state of Innocence. This Lamb is, of course, Jesus Christ, son of God and saviour of the Mankind. There is a curious line in the 2 nd stanza – “I a child & thou a lamb.” We can take it to mean that the poet William Blake is restored to the state of Innocence as a child, and that both the child and the lamb are called to this state of Innocence by Jesus Himself. The power of the poem lies in the question repeated four times: “Who made thee?” and Blake invites the reader, you and me, to ask this profound and fundamental question of ourselves. The poem is in 2 stanzas, with rhymed couplets, with 4 stresses to each line. The poem has the rhythms of a nursery rhyme that appeals to children. The rhyme scheme and the simple lexis (vocabulary) make it easy to memorise, perhaps as children were asked to memorise their catechisms.
The Tyger is one of Blake’s most most popular poems, and one one of his most mysterious. mysterious. If The Lamb represents Jesus and God’s love for His creation, The Tyger represents God’s righteous anger, and Blake asks the question: “How can one Creator create both creatures?” This is a profound question that has puzzled men since the foundation of Christianity. How can a loving, caring, considerate God create a universe that also contains anger,
greed, hate, oppression. oppression. In Blake’s terms, how can the God of Innocence Innocence also be the God of Experience? The answer answer is hinted at in the phrase phrase “fearful symmetry”. symmetry”. Think Think of symmetry as a mirror image that reveals and contains opposites. opposites. Eternity Eternity and the Human Soul is, to Blake, in a state of balance between two contraries: between gentleness and ferocity, love and wrath, punishment and forgiveness, purity and corruption, Innocence and Experience. Blake’s Tyger raises these profound questions, but does not finally answer them. Blake’s Tyger may also be the symbol symbol of artistic artistic rather than natural natural creation, a work of Art rather than a product of Nature. The tyger is personified as having been born from from fire, fire, forg forged ed rathe ratherr than than grow grown, n, and and chara charact cteri erise sed d in term termss of its its metal metalli licc coldness. Note how the poem’s imagery creates association of fire, coldness and darkness – hammer, chain, furnace, brain, anvil and sinews of the heart. The poem asks the question: who could have dared to make – ‘frame’ – a beast as terrifying as the tyger? It then goes on to liken the making of the tyger to the dangerous process of fashioning molten metal from the furnace with hammer and anvil. In the fifth verse the poet asks the question: 'Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee?' Blake implies that it was God who made both the gentle lamb and the ferocious ferocious tiger, but that he may regret having created so fierce a beast as the latter. The concluding verse of the poem is identical to the opening verse, giving the poem itself 'symmetry', but note that in line 4 'could' has been replaced by 'dare'. The change from could to dare is crucial – even if the Creator could make such a terrifying creature, would he even dare to make it?
The Songs of Innocence and of Experience were intended by Blake to show 'the two contrary states of the human soul'. 'The Tyger' is the contrary poem to 'The Lamb' in the Songs of Innocence. 'The Lamb' is about a kindly God who 'calls himself a Lamb' and is himself meek and mild. The tiger, by contrast, is a terrifying animal 'burning' with fire in its eyes. The poet therefore finds it hard to believe that the same God who created the gentle lamb would also make the 'dread' tiger. Although the natural world contains much that is gentle and innocent (“Songs of Innocence”), those who are experienced with life (“Songs of Experience”) know that there is also much that is terrible and frightening frightening.. (The “fearful “fearful symmetry” might be that of the lamb and the tyger, innocence and experience.) FORM & LANGUAGE
‘The Tyger’ is ruled by symmetry: symmetry between stanzas, between lines and within lines. For this reason, one of the details that leaps out at us immediately is the lack of symmetry between the first and last stanzas, where a single word could in stanza 1 is changed to dare in stanza 6. Compare ‘What immortal hand or eye eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?’ with ‘What immortal hand or eye dare frame thy fearful symmetry?’
The first question asks if there is any power that has the ability to create such a terrible entity as the tyger; the second suggests that even if there were a power able to create the tiger, would it have the nerve, the courage to create such an awesome beast. What in the poem has led us from could to dare, from asking if anyone has the ability to create the tyger to questioning if anyone has the courage to create it? Throughout the poem the tyger tyger is portrayed portrayed as a ‘dread beast’; in English, English, ‘dread’ ‘dread’ is one of the those rare words that can mean its own opposite, both ‘fearsome’ and ‘fearing’. Let’s make this clear: if I say to you, do not have anything to do with that dread man, I could be meaning that the man in question is to be feared, or that the man himself is fearing fearing/afr /afraid aid someth something ing may happen happen.. Incide Incidental ntally, ly, this this happen happenss with with the word word ‘fearful’ itself – what two meanings can the phrase ‘fearful children’ have? So the phrase ‘dread beast’ immediately raises the question: what is being feared here by whom, and why? Or, to put it another way, what does the tiger represent, and thus what might it mean to try to ‘frame’ the tyger’s fearful symmetry. Is the narrator questioning God’s ability to create such a creature of fearful symmetry, or is he questioning the ability of the artist to frame/create such fearful symmetry? Note the ambiguity of the word ‘frame’ itself; it holds both the meaning to create something, and the meaning to place it/frame it like a picture within an artistic context. What is it about the tyger that is untameable? Perhaps it is the untameable materials of the the imag imagin inat atio ion n with with whic which h the the arti artist st must must work work.. Reme Rememb mber er that that the the tyge tyger r represents/symbolizes energy and power, and also perfect form, in the sense of being perfectly formed. A crucial aspect of perfect form is symmetry, the beauty of the machine, a beauty that may be beyond all framing, control and capture. In the repetition of the word dread, we may also detect the menacing sound of the tyger padding through the jungle towards us. These sounds may echo the world of Experience Experience closing in, but they may also echo the sounds within our own hearts and souls, souls, our deepes deepestt desire desires, s, our irrepr irrepress essibl iblee nature natures, s, the savage savage beast beast within within the civilized soul. This brings us to what many critics have considered to be the crux of the poem in the fifth stanza. When the stars ‘threw down their spears / And water’s heaven with their tears’, in what mood are they doing that? Are they throwing down their spears in the sense of attempting attempting to ambush ambush their mighty mighty earth-bound earth-bound opponent, opponent, the tyger? tyger? Or are they throwing down their spears in the sense of ‘throwing in the towel’, surrendering, giving in, giving up? And who are they – angelic powers? And who is really in charge here, the ‘stars’ or the tyger? And finally, finally, just what is the tyger? tyger? As human beings, beings, we are always always trying to find reasonable, rationale, scientific explanations for everything round us. Perhaps Blake is saying that the tyger represents those things thaT can never be reduced, explained and captured by scientific explanations. Some things are beyond mind and matter; they belong belong to the spiritual spiritual world from where we ourselves ourselves originally originally come and to where we will eventually return. Born of star dust, we return to star dust.
In this poem, Blake is saying that human beings must have room in their hearts for every human feeling, from joy to sorrow, from delight to despair. Blake’s bosom, his heart, has room enough for both the merry sparrow and its joy, and the sobbing robin and its sorrow. Just as both find a home amongst the Blossom, they find a place in his heart. And this is possible because the eyes of innocence allow us to see that all aspects of creation are aspects of the divine; as Blake famously said and believed: “ Everything is holy.” Note that sight is the dominant sense in the first stanza – sees you swift as arrow – and hearing is the dominant sense in the second stanza – hears you sobbing sobbing. This suggests suggests that we must us ALL of our senses if we are to perceive perceive the wholeness wholeness and the holiness of the world of innocence. The two stanzas repeat each other in terms of structure, which makes us all the more able to focus clearly on the difference between the two. In the first, the sparrow is ‘merry’ (chirpily cheerful); in the second, the robin may be ‘pretty’, but nonetheless is ‘sobbing sobbing’. We may take this to mean that Nature has room within it for all manner of feelings and emotions, all of which need to be valued as highly as each other, and all of which deserve to find a place ‘near my Bosom’, in other words, in the human heart. Many critics have pointed out the symbolic sexual connotations at play in this lyric, with its vision of the young Blossom anticipating the Sparrow's and Robin's embraces. These associations may be there, but the poem can also be seen as an evocation of innocent love, merriment, and growth within the natural order.
THE SICK ROSE
The decoration for The Sick Rose mocks that of The Blossom. The Rose is love, love, and the invisible worm represents conventional morality and the possessive jealousy that encourages it. The speaker wonders at the secret destruction of the rose by ‘the invisible worm’. The sick rose might be seen as the contrary of the ‘blossom’. ‘blossom’. Far from presenting presenting an image of freshness and beauty, it reminds re minds us of sickness, death and decay. Remember, how horrid an overblown rose can look as it begins to rot. The ‘worm’ (which might also be a serpent or a penis) is destroying the rose from within, as jealousy and fear, in the world of experience, perpetually destroy our hopes for a better life. Remember, too, how the innocent happiness of Othello and Desdemona was destroyed by the green-eyed monster of jealousy. The worm certainly seems, nonetheless, to represent a kind of love; but this is the ‘dark secret love’ intimately linked to jealousy and possessiveness, the kind of love that seeks to bind, not free, the beloved, and the love which in the end destroys itself. There is a kind of ‘coming ‘coming together’ together’ of the rose and the worm here, but but it is not a
sharing of mutual respect which but a power struggle that can only become a fight to the death. Why is the worm ‘invisible’? Why does he fly through a ‘howling storm’? Perhaps the invisibility is to do with the secrecy of this (sexual) liaison, and the storm signifies a kind of passion; but this passion is in the end destructive and self-destructive, the very opposite of the kind of ‘free love’ that Blake regards as the greatest of all human gifts. Remember, Remember, for Blake human love is an expression expression of the love God has for His Creation. The miracle of The Sick Rose is that Blake has distilled all of this into thirty-four simple words.
THE CHIMNEY SWEEPER (Innocence)
In The Chimne Blakee call called ed atte attent ntio ion n to one one of the the blin blindd-sp spot otss of Chimneyy Sweep Sweeper er , Blak “enlightened” English society. Chimneys had to be swept, and often their flues were narrow. Children, as young as four, were hired or sold to contractors who used them to brush soot from caked flues and carry it away in bags. In 1788 Parliament passed a law to prohibit the use of children under the age of eight as chimney-sweepers, to force their masters to allow them to wash once a week, and to prevent their being sent up into burning chimneys chimneys where they might be, and too often were, burned to death. These laws were largely ignored and rarely enforced. This is one of the most disturbing of all the Songs of Innocence because it is difficult to see what Blake is getting at. Do we take the Angel at face-value? If we do, the poem may seem hopelessly naïve because the reality for the child sweeps has not changed one bit because of the Angel’s intervention; the boys still have to get up next morning and go touting for business. business. Is Blake using irony, and suggesting that even the intervention of angelic forces will not help these little lads? Is it right that Tom Dacre should go happily back to work, or has he been deluded by an entirely false sense sense of ‘duty’ ‘duty’ – misled misled,, that that is, by his own ‘innoc ‘innocenc ence’. e’. And to whom is the advice/admonition/ warning “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm” actually directed? Is Blake seriously suggesting that if the boys do their duty, everything will turn out fine? Or does the ‘all’ include all those people – society, state, church, king, parliament - who have betrayed the child sweeps by ignoring their plight? plight? The child tells how his father sold him to a master sweep when he was so young that he could not even pronounce the words 'sweep, sweep' (the traditional street cry chimney sweeps called out to advertise their presence). The boy comforts Tom Dacre, another child-sweep whose blond hair has just been shaved off. Tom goes to sleep and dreams that an angel sets free all the sweeps so they can run, play and swim freely in the innocence of youth. The angel tells Tom that if he is a 'good boy' God will love him and he will never 'want joy' (lack happiness). Tom awakes, warm and cheerful, and the poem ends with the moral: 'So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm'.
This child-monologue uses the child's innocent perspective to present what could be a biting and savage indictment of social and psychic repression: the child's consoling
vision vision of the pastor pastoral al after-li after-life fe may be a glorio glorious us and 'innoc 'innocent ent'' celebr celebrati ation on of Heaven, or it may equally well show the extent to which the child-speaker has been conditioned into acceptance of his slavery in this life. The moral at the end of the poem is the statement of the young sweep who narrates the poem. Obviously it is nonsense: the climbing boys all 'do their duty' but still come to great harm. Yet is the sweep merely repeating the moral code which he has been taught taught by society? One thing is certainly certainly true: the child/narrat child/narrator or of the poem is not innocent; he is at some level aware of the deception that forms the heart of the poem – “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.” harm.” The poem is ABOUT innocen innocence, ce, but it is not narrated from an innocent standpoint. The child/narrator is neither a fool nor an innocent in terms of knowledge; perhaps he unites with Blake in protesting against the exploitation of the little chimney sweeps through the sheer blatant naivety of the cruel temptation that rounds off the poem – suffer in cheerful silence and all will be well. The poem thus holds a mirror up to its readers: it is you who deceive children with this false morality, just as it is 'your chimneys' (verse 1, line 4) that are responsible for having boy sweeps in the first place.
THE CHIMNEY SWEEPER (Experience)
This poem savagely exposes the hypocrisy of conventional religion; the father and mother mother are gone up to church to pray while their child is abandoned to the elements. The narrator asks the chimney sweep where his parents are; the child tries to explain why they have abandoned him to misery. The poem is also savage about how we misunderstand children’s emotions: because the young sweep might appear happy, in the sense that he is making the best of a dreadful situation, his self-serving and selfdeluding parents choose to believe that they have done him ‘no injury’. The The forc forcee of the the scen scenee is heig height hten ened ed by bein being g plac placed ed in wint winter, er, amid amid ‘sno ‘snow’ w’,, reflecting and emphasizing the cold-heartedness of the everyday world of Experience. In his second The Chimney Sweeper Blake condemns the hypocrisy of the pious, especially of the clergy who opposed the legislation to correct the abuses against these young waifs. The line “And because I am happy & dance & sing” may refer ironically to a May day custom; sweeps and milkmaids were given the day off and permitted to sing, dance, and do stunts in the streets for pennies. A very much darker and more savage vision here than in the counterpart poem in the Songs of Innocence Innocence . The references to a church which is complicit in the repression of the child, together with the treatment of the negligent parents, make this one of the most bitter poems in the sequence, with its emphasis on a whole system (God, Priest and King) which represses the child, even forcing forcing him to conceal his unhappines unhappinesss (a reference to being “clothed”), psychologically as well as physically).
A CRADLE SONG
The narrator watches his baby sleeping, and is r eminded of God who became a human chil child d in the the pers person on of Jesu Jesuss and and wept wept for for mank mankin ind. d. The The poem poem may may best best be characterised as a RHAPSODY on sleep and innocence, (a rhapsody is the outpouring of emotion, sometimes without much regard for the formal constraints of verse). In his encounter with the states of sleeping and of innocence, the narrator receives a strong reminder of the divine; which, as we see throughout the Songs, can be seen for Blake only in the human form. The subject matter of this poem may seem very simple, but the form is in one sense quite complex. Although rhyme and rhythm are easy to make out, there is a curiously ‘entwined’ way in which crucial words – sweet, sleep, beguiles – weave their way through the poem. This creates an effect we may fairly describe as ‘hypnotic’; the connection connection between between hypnotism hypnotism and somnambu somnambulism lism (sleep-walki (sleep-walking) ng) suggests suggests that Blake may be trying to create a poem which in some sense not only describes but also replicates the condition of sleep – and thus of dreaming. The poem shifts gradually from present tense to the past – why is this? Think also about the word ‘beguiles’, which has a range of meanings (for example, to persuade through deception), not all of them wholesome. Blake clearly suggests that sleep puts a kind of spell upon us. Does this poem encourage us to suppose that this state of bliss can continue for ever? Is it intrinsic to the state of Innocence that there will be future chan change ge as inev inevit itab able le waki waking ng foll follow owss sleep sleep?? Why, Why, to put put it anot anothe herr way, way, does does ‘weeping’ gradually encroach on the poem, as it does in others of Blake’s poems? Are these early warnings of the Experience to come? Do you think the infant in this cradle has more in common with infant joy or infant sorrow? The form and language of the poem are pure Blake. The verse form is the rhymed quatrain (stanza of four lines) with the rhyme scheme a-a-b-b and four stressed beats to each line - the tetrameter . This was a popular form for hymns, songs, nursery rhymes, lullabies and the ballads, and helps give the cradle song its lyrical qualities.
THE CLOD & THE PEBBLE
A clod of clay and a pebble discuss the selfless and the selfish versions of love. This beautifully structured poem opposes two views of love: the first, as enunciated by the clod of clay, regards love as a force whereby one gives oneself to and on behalf of the other person; the second, in the voice of the pebble, speaks of a selfish, jealous love which is only really an excuse to glorify the self. By putting them in this order, Blake clearly shows which is dominant in the world of Experience – the voice of selfishness. Let’s paraphrase the poem to see clearly the points of view expressed by the clod and by the pebble.
The clod argues that true love doesn’t seek to please only itself, nor does it care about only itself; it tries to give to these things, pleasure and care, to its beloved and can even turn the despair of Hell into the delights of Heaven. The pebble argues the exact opposite by saying that love seeks only its own pleasure, tries to bend the beloved to its will, and finds joy in the comfort of the beloved, and spites Heaven by turning love into Hell.
Why does Blake pout these words into the mouths of two such unlikely protagonists as a clod of clay and a pebble? Critics have given various different answers, but the most likely is that the clod of clay is soft and malleable; it takes the imprint of the ‘cattles feet’. In contrast, the pebble is hard, unyielding, resistant, unchanging, and is thus a fitting emblem for the soul which cannot change or adapt, and which cannot fully take on the reality of other people, other minds, other hearts. The pebble can only and always be itself; the clay can become the other, as God Himself shaped Man from a clod of clay. To Blak Blakee the the clod clod of clay clay symb symbol oliz izes es unse unselfi lfish sh love love beca becaus usee it is capab capable le pf nourishing within it the seed of life. The pebble is a small rock – dead matter – and further more it is washed in water, which, for Blake, symbolizes symbolizes materialism, greed and selfishness. This poem provides two contrasting attitudes, one of selfless Love for others, and the second, of Love as self-absorption and possessiveness. Blake’s choice of clod and pebble pebble as mouthpieces mouthpieces for opposing opposing conception conceptionss of love is carefully calculated. The clod is soft, shapeless, malleable, passive, downtrodden. The pebble is hard, shapely, impermeable. As soon as these associations are placed within a context of sexual love, the clod is the selfless female, the pebble the selfish male. They are contraries , but in the fallen world of Experience, contraries can only remain irreconcilable opposites, locked into a relationship where one does all the giving and the other all the taking. A shallow or too hasty reading of this poem might well lead us to suppose that we are intended simply to approve the clod’s innocent and Christian definition of love and reject the pebble’s cynicism and wicked selfishness, but as we have seen, this is never what what Blak Blakee inte intend nds. s. Blak Blakee alwa always ys recog recogni nise sed d the the inter interpl play ay of Inno Innoce cenc ncee and and Expe Experi rien ence; ce; he knew knew that that the the worl world d was was a diffi difficu cult lt,, chal challen lengi ging ng place place,, and and he recognised the pebble’s right to view Love from this perverted perspective. For Blake, the true evil was to say that there was only one perspective on human affairs. From an early age Blake had his own highly developed sense of evil. The greatest evil seemed to him to be to deprive another of freedom. He could see around him plenty of examples of the exploitation of children and the poor. But more insidious were the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ with which men sought, often in the name of Christian love or parental care, to bind children with rules and duties and creeds to save them from their own bodies and desires, which they were taught to see as sinful. Joy in almost any form was suspect. The child was thus deprived of the freedom to be itself, the freedom to be fully male or female, and the freedom to be fully human.
THE DIVINE IMAGE
Mercy, pity, peace and love are all divine attributes attributes that have a human human form. We are therefore beholden to respect all forms of human life. The central doctrine of this poem is one to which Blake was to hold throughout his life, namely, that God has a human form; in other words, that there is nothing in divinity or in creation of which we need to be afraid, because the whole of God’s creation is essentially human in shape, and thus, especially in the state of Innocence, we can safely feel that we belong here, and we need to give thanks to God for the safety he has given us. Let us again paraphrase the poem, stanza by stanza, to see clearly what it is saying: 1. In times of trouble we all pray to the virtues of Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love, and then we give thanks for the help and comfort these virtues give us. 2. Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love are the expressions of God’s love, and He cares for us like a father cares for his children. 3. Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love as all expressions of God in human form. These divine virtues take on flesh in human form (as Christ took on flesh to become Jesus). 4. So every man in every part of the world turns to these same divine qualities. 5. And because they are divine divine qualities, we must all love each other whether we are heathen, Turk, or Jew (regardless of our race or religion). For William Blake, Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love were cardinal virtues. Blake is saying that when we absorb and live by these Virtues, then we are doing our best to aspire to divinity/holiness/the state of Innocence. Blake truly believed that God does not dwell in the deeps of the Universe but in the everyday acts of kindness and compassion which link us to each other and to the rest of the sentient/feeling universe. This lyric expresses expresses in abstract abstract terms the cardinal cardinal Christian Christian tenets of God becoming becoming Man, and therefore of the human form as a manifestation of God himself: for that reason all men, regardless of creed or colour, should be seen as divine divine creations, creations, and as manifestations of Love, Love, Mercy, Pity and Peace. The “human form form divine” of The Divine Image refers to Blake’s concept that man is not only created in God’s image but actually partakes of God’s substance. In other words, “everything that lives is holy.” The form and language of the poem are pure Blake. The verse form is the rhymed quatrain (stanza of four lines) with the rhyme scheme a-b-c-b and four stressed beats to each line - the tetrameter . The repetition of certain lines and phrases, together with its form, give this poem the sombre, stateliness of a hymn, and it is easy to imagine it set to some grand old tune, sung by a sober Sunday congregation.
THE HUMAN ABSTRACT
The Human Abstract reverses the terms of The Divine Image and spells out with cynical enthusiasm how the authorities have perverted the notions of pity and mercy to thei theirr own own ends ends,, and and how how they they use use them them to just justify ify econ econom omic ic ineq inequa uali lity ty and and exploitation. Here all is deceit and hypocrisy, culminating in the ‘dismal shade of Mystery’, the dreaded tree which occurs often in Blake. This tree, the inversion of the true ‘tree’ (cross) of Christ’s crucifixion serves only to cover the deadly operations of the tyranny of the Establishment and its Authority. Let us paraphrase the poem:
We would not need Pity if we did not make people Poor. And we would not need to show Mercy to others if they were as happy as us. It is selfish love that destroys the peace of our souls, and then Cruelty builds a snare, a trap, and sets out its baits, its temptations, to lure us into the trap. Cruelty then sits down and hypocritically waters the ground with crocodile/false tears until real humility is beneath its feet. From this root grows the Tree of Mystery which, for Blake, stands for false religion. It is this false religion, with its false beliefs and doctrines, that obscures and hides the simple relationship we should have with God. The Tree of Mystery is home to the Caterpillar and the Fly who represent priests and the priesthood. The priesthood uses the mysteries of false religion to feed on the ignorance of simple folk, just as the caterpillar and fly feed on the leaves of the Tree. And this brings forth the fruit of Deceit; the fruit may look red and delicious to eat but they are full of rotten corruption. And in this corrupted and corrupting Tree, the bird of Death, the Raven, has made his home. The Tree of Mystery is not a true part of Nature, so the Gods of Earth and Sea search for it in vain – for this Tree grows only in the Human Brain. The essential message of the poem is that Fear, Cruelty and False humility give rise to the ‘Tree of Mystery’, which obscures the imagination; but the roots of this tree are to be found in our own minds. Only by returning to a state of Innocence, only by ‘cleansing the doors of perception’, will we see ourselves and the world as it really is, and make our way through Experience to Innocence. Against The Blakee sets sets The Human The Divi Divine ne Im Imag agee Blak Human Abstr Abstract act , a summary of psych psycholo ologic gical al develo developme pment nt in the world world of Experi Experience ence.. The virtue virtuess of deligh delightt – Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love – are transformed into hypocrisy and cruelty that produce the false virtue of humility in the down-trodden. The sing-along here is in direct counterpoint to the violence of the imagery, whereby we are shown how the whole of humanity is perverted by the lies of those in power, of ‘God & his Priest & King’. King’. At the same time, though, though, the final stanza stanza reminds that that we make a mistake if we look for a solution to our woes in the outside world; these dire things would not occur unless there was something inside us that wills them that way, or at least gives in and capitulates in external tyranny. We are only too willing to accept and wear the mind-forg’d manacles of Established Authority.
NURSE’S SONG [I]
This is a poem of unalloyed and unsullied joy and innocence. The children are happily at play on the village green, and when the nurse is faced with the choice between the children’s happiness and her own duty, she chooses their happiness. This is a scene from the world of Innocence with no shadows of the Experience yet to come. “The sun is gone down” but the children point out that the little birds still fly and the hills are covered with sheep. The children live in harmony with the rhythms of nature, not the world ruled by regulations, authority and the clock. The nurse gives the children freedom, but she also gives them responsibility – “go and play till the light fades away and then go home to bed.” The nurse does not take them to bed; she trusts the children to make their own way home to bed when the time is right. The first stanza in the poem evidences Blake’s pleasure in the play of children; thereafter it is a conversation between the children and their nurse. The conclusion is that children should be left to the natural cycle of the day and night rather than being subjected to the unnatural constraints of duty, and the rhythms of an industrialised world. The nurse appears at first to want to tear the children away from their play while they are still enjoying themselves; when the children remonstrate/plead/argue with her, she relents/gives in, thus showing all the characteristic of a ‘good nurse’. In Blake’s terms, she recognises their desires and allows them their freedom; at the same time she does not impose any fear on them about their enjoying their situation – at play on the green as dusk falls and the light fades away. Interestingly, in the second stanza she suggests that ‘ the sun is gone down’ (as indeed perhaps it has); but after the children have pleaded with her she accepts that they can continue playing until finally ‘ the light fades away’, and at the same time she gives them some responsibility for determining their own lives rather than imposing the conventional demands of the clock upon them. The children here can clearly see – perhaps through the innocent eye of imagination – something the grown-up nurse cannot: even though the sun has gone down, they can still see the ‘little birds fly’ and the sheep on the hills. The strength of the nurse lies in her willingness to realise that their perception may be stronger than her own. It is in this respect – that the perception of children may be more acute than that of grownups – that we need to contrast this ‘Nurse’s Song’ with its bitter opposite in Songs of Experience , where, as we shall see, the nurse is transformed by bitterness, envy and experience. The verse form is again the quatrain (stanza of four lines) with the rhyme scheme a-bc-b, and the tetrameter (four stresses) popular in hymns, nursery rhymes, singing rhymes, and ballads of the time. Notice how fluid the poem is; the lengthy open line of each stanza slips easily into the ‘And’ of the second line… and leads to the conclusion of the third and fourth lines in each stanza. Try it and see! Note, too, how conv convers ersat atio ion n eleme element ntss such such as ‘Com ‘Comee come come’’ and and ‘W ‘Wel elll well well’’ make make the the poem poem
convincing as a dialogue between nurse and children. Remember, too, that when Blake writes out the final –ed of a verb, he means it to be sounded; so, bed will rhyme with echo-ed, which gives a pleasing note of finality to the poem. Note, too, how the echoing hills echo the echoing green – but is that asking too much?!
NURSE’S SONG [Ex]
The nurse in the Songs of Experience Experience has become embittered by life; The nurse hears the voices of the children, but she is able to relate to them only in terms of fear, anxiety and repression. In the first version of the the ‘Nurse’s Song’, we can imagine that the nurse still shares in the Innocence of the children, but this later Nurse is consumed by the conventions and bitterness of Experience. This second nurse is jealous, envious and resents the joyful innocence of the children she cares for. It is clear that she had an unhappy childhood because memories of those days turn her face green and pale; remember, green is the colour of jealousy and pale of a sickliness. Instead of celebrating the joys of innocence, she takes a perverse pleasure in denying the children their chance at happiness. Her bitterness is ugly for she tells the children they are wasting their childhood in play – the direct opposite of Blake’s truth – and that in adulthood they will have to wear the disguises of hypocrisy, pretending that she loves her adult life, just as she wears her own disguise of the caring nurse. This woman stands for everything that Blake hated hated in unreas unreasona onable ble author authority ity which which puts puts duty duty before before deligh delight, t, scorns scorns play, play, and believes that we should all trudge along on a treadmill they call life. Whereas Whereas the earlier earlier song song showe showed d a benevo benevolen lent, t, caring caring nurse, nurse, respon responsiv sivee to her children’s needs and desires, this much shorter and chokingly bitter poem shows a nurse who finds in her charges merely the expression of a potential freedom she cannot bear to contemplate, and which she must repress at all costs. Faced with their innoce innocent nt enthus enthusias iasm, m, her reactio reaction n is to impris imprison on them them in her own mind-forg mind-forg’d ’d manacles. The word ‘green’ suffers a change in this poem: the ‘green’ of line 1 is still the playspace of the children, but when the nurse’s face turns green in line 4, we may read this as either a sickness she feels at the sight of the children, or as a mark of her jealousy of their freedom. In her face, we can see the green-eyed monster of jealousy. She cannot understand or appreciate the joy of the children; she sees play as only a waste of time, and as useless in face of a future adult life in which desire will always need to be ‘disguised’. ‘disguised’. There will be no actualization of potential for these children; merely the harness of the donkey of duty. What part in all this do the nurse’s own memories memories play? Clearly the days of her own chil childh dhoo ood d do not not sign signify ify the the memo memory ry of a happ happy y time time whic which h she she ,mig ,might ht also also encourage in the children. On the contrary, their freedom and happiness fill; her with loathing, and so we might surmise that the repression to which she subjects the children is a reflection and repetition of her own repressed childhood. Therefore, the process of repression is handed down through the generation, and the nurse fails in her primary responsibility – to nurture the children. Then again, we might ask what a
nurse’s role should be – is she there to ensure the children have the joy and innocence of their childhood, childhood, or to prepare them for the ‘long littleness littleness of life’? And where are the parents in this poem? Have they, too, ‘gone up to the church to pray’?
The poet addresses a happy newborn child and wishes its joy to continue. The poem states that we are all born in innocence, but it also warns that whether we retain that innocence depends on how we are treated, for when the infants says that ‘joy’ is its name, name, the narrator narrator respon responds ds in kind by saying saying ‘Sweet ‘Sweet joy befall befall thee’. We can imagine, especially from ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ a very different response which would blight this little child’s hopes of joy in life. The poem is a dialogue between the infant and the poet (or, perhaps, the infant’s mother). The infant is in a state of innocence and communicates his joy to his mother. She in turn communicates her joy to him through song; it is almost a lullaby. He in turn brings out her joy through his smiles. We notice how the infant’s smile provokes the narrator to song (our psychologists will think of social releasers, the reciprocal nature of attachments, and securely attached infants), reminding us once again how critical the notions of ‘song’ and ‘singing’ are throughout Blake’s poems. Thus we may see the narrator is talking not only about the development of the child but also about the necessary place of song, and poetry, in that development, and by extension, in the whole of human life. The verse is tender, lyrical and clearly intended for children. The infant is a symbol of all infants and children in a state of innocence. There are no dark shadows of life’s experiences to come. The mother plays her part perfectly because she slows and encourages the child to express his joy in a free, uncomplicated way. When we consider Infant Joy and Infant Sorrow together, we are reminded how conscious Blake was of the complexity of the forces in adult life which allow people either to continue to have a sense of childlike innocence and wonder throughout their lives or which kill that sense off in the very young. Blake reminds us that we adults have the power to develop or destroy the imagination of the young – they very creative imagination that allows human beings:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand, And Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour.
the coun counte terp rpar artt to Infant Here the the chil child d leap leapss into into the the Infant Infant Sorrow Sorrow is the Infant Joy. Here “dangerous world”, helpless as in the Songs of Innocence, but here imprisoned by the parents and the world, and sulking at the breast. The baby is born not in joy but in terror – and in order to survive the world’s dangers has to become become a hypocrite. hypocrite. The decoration decoration to the latter latter is dark. A woman stands stands in front of a curtained bed, reaching towards an infant in a crib. Curtains and swaddling clothes are symbols of the senses which rob humanity of its perception of Eternity. This is a much darker poem. Here the infant realises he has been born into the world of Experience which has already corrupted and tainted his mother and father. His mother groans from the pains of childbirth which, though painful, should be a joyful experience. His father weeps because the child represents just another burden in his life unfulfilled life. The infant himself realises how dangerous the world of experience will be. He has already learned to be a hypocrite, to hide his true feelings – “like a fiend in a cloud”. Our normal image of angelic infants is chubby, cheerful babies floating on pink, fluffy clouds; this child realises the truth is very different. The father’s father’s hands hands and the swaddl swaddling ing bands bands repres represent ent the rules, rules, regula regulatio tions ns and restrictions restrictions which have already begun to bind the child and his desires. desires. They are the ‘mind forg’d manacles” that imprison the creative imagination, denying human beings the chance to regain the vision of the Innocence they have lost, simply by being born. Exhausted and frustrated by his struggle, the infant sinks upon his mother’s breast, and sulks as he awaits the end of his own innocence. This poem might initially seem more like the start of a poem than a finished work. Nonetheless, it gives us a clear picture of what happens to the infant in the world of experience – fearful of his future, oppressed by the role of the father, and finally settling down into a hypocritical sulking. Our psychologists might like to consider the infant as the Id, and the father as the repressive Ego, forcing the child to curb his natural instinct to seek immediate pleasures and gratification. In Blake’s view, the only hope for a child born in such circumstances (and they are, according to him, the prevailing circumstances in the world we ordinarily know) is through the opening of the eyes of creative imagination. However, in this poem the very very foresh foreshort orteni ening ng of the poem poem preven prevents ts any such such possib possibili ility ty being being consid considere ered. d. Instead we leave the infant at the point where it has already given up any real hope and settled into a malevolent attitude to the world, which we know from Blake’s other poems will develop into open violence as life goes on. For Blake, however, the world cannot be dangerous in itself, any more than it can be safe; EVERYTHING depends on how we view it. Perhaps Blake is making the point that the child here is merely receiving the perspectives of its parents who have already been tainted by the bitterness of Experience; and the child may be sulking as it comes
to realize how slight its chances are off not following in their footsteps. Here the child may truly be father to the man before the man becomes father to the child.
WILLIAM BLAKE – HIS LIFE & IDEAS William Blake was born on November 28, 1757 at 28 Broad Street, Golden Square, Square, in the Soho area of London, where his father, Jam James es Blak Blake, e, had had a su succ cces essf sful ul hosi hosier ery y business. When William was born, the Blakes had one older son and were to have two more sons and a daughter before the family circle was complete. They were religious folk who held household devotions every day, when James read the Bible aloud to his brood. Strict but understanding parents, they soon realized that their second son was gifted in many ways. Among his gifts were an active imagination and a talent for seeing visions. As early as four years old, William later recalled, he had seen God press His face against the windowpane. Because the child was sensitive and because schools of the day were noted for their strict and sometimes cruel discipline, William was not sent to grammar school. His mother taught him to read and write at home. William spent his youth roaming about London and the countryside on the the edge edge of town town.. One One on of his his ramb ramble les, s, Will Willia iam m reac reache hed d Peckham Rye near Dulwich, where he saw a tree filled with angels. He hastened to tell his family of the vision, whereupon his father, deci decidi ding ng the the time time had had come come for for his his son son to dist distin ingu guis ish h betw betwee een n fantasy and reality, threatened to whip him for telling an untruth. His mother, however, took his part. When she questioned him about the experience, he described the angels as looking like thoughts. He had seen them in his imagination, but the impression was vivid inde indeed ed.. It is not not poss possib ible le to over overes esti tima mate te what what the the powe powerr of imagination meant to Blake throughout his life. Blake describes his childhood wanderings in a song from his Poetical Sketches which he started writing at the age of thirteen: How sweet I roamed from field to field And tasted all the summer's pride According to the accounts Blake gave of his literary development, he was already reading the works of John Milton (Paradise Lost) and Isaiah in the Bible as a child. At the age of ten, Blake was sent to Mr. Pars' drawing school in the Strand, where where he copied copied plast plasterer-cas casts ts of ancien ancientt sculpt sculpture ures. s. His His
father, unable to afford the cost of placing Blake as the pupil of a leading painter, took the prudent decision to apprentice him to an engraver at the age of fourteen. Blake's Blake's master, master, James Basire of Queen Street, Street, Lincoln's Inn, was engr engrav aver er to the Londo ondon n Soci ociety ety of Antiq ntiqua uarries. es. Befo efore the development of photography, the most practical way to reproduce an illustration was to copy the original painstakingly by hand with a sharp tool, a burin, onto a copper plate, which could then be printed. From From Basi Basire re,, Will Willia iam m lear learne ned d the the mott motto o that that infl influe uenc nced ed his his ju judge dgemen mentt of art and artis artists ts for the remain remainder der of his life: “Firm “Firm strokes and clear outlines.” It is not too fanciful to imagine that Blake also applied this motto to his poems, particularly those in The Songs of Innocence and Experience and Experience.. Basire encouraged the boy to develop his extraordinary ability as a draftsman. After two years, he gave him an especially responsible and congenial assignment. William was dispatched to Westminster Abbey to make drawings of tombs and monuments. Here he learned to love gothic art. He stood on the tombs to view them better and even made sketches when the grave of Edward I was opened. For five five year years, s, off off an on, on, he work worked ed in the the Ab Abbe bey y alon alone, e, draf drafti ting ng sketches for his master and immersing himself in Gothic forms. It would would have have been been surpri surprisi sing ng is Blake Blake’s ’s imagi imaginat nation ion had not been been stirred by the grandeur of the old building. He had his full share of visions here: of processions of monks, and once of Christ and His Twelve Apostles walking down the aisle to the high altar. In his free time, Blake collected prints of then unfashionable artists such such as Durer Durer,, Raphae Raphael, l, and Michel Michelang angelo elo.. In liter literatu ature re too, too, he reject rejected ed eighte eighteent enth-c h-cent entury ury polish polish,, prefe preferr rring ing the Eliza Elizabet bethan hans s (Sha (Shake kesp spea eare re,, Jons Jonson on and and Spen Spense ser) r) and and anci ancien entt ball ballad ads, s, both both authentic (such as Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry), and forged forged (such as Macpherso Macpherson's n's Ossian and Chatterto Chatterton's n's Poems of Rowley).
When When he beca became me 21 21,, his his appr appren enti tice cesh ship ip ende ended. d. His His skil skilll as a draftsman and engrave aver was acknowledged, and almost immediately immediately he received commissions commissions from publishers. At the same time time he studi studied ed paintin painting g at the Royal Royal Academ Academy, y, and in August August 1779, Blake was admitted to the Academy (founded by the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds who was then its president). Paying his way by producing engravings for novels and catalogues, Blake drew from casts, life models and corpses, and shared in the dream of founding a new English school of historical painting. The There re was, was, howe howeve ver, r, fric fricti tion on betw betwee een n Blak Blake e and and his his teac teache hers rs.. Reynolds recommended that he work with 'less extravagance and
more more simpl simplici icity' ty',, while while George George Michae Michaell Moser, Moser, anothe anotherr teache teacherr there, discouraged Blake's admiration admiration for the 'old, hard, stiff and dry unfinished works' of Raphael and Michelangelo. On the other hand, Blake was inspired by the artist James artist James Barry and his grand historical paintings. He made friends with other young artists and was able to exhibit his own historical watercolours. watercolours. Blake took lodgings in Battersea, south of the River Thames, and within within a few month months s marr married ied the landlo landlord’ rd’s s daught daughter er Cather Catherin ine e Boucher at St Mary's, Battersea, Battersea, on August 18, 1782. The newlyweds then moved out of Blake's father's house to Green Street, Street, near Leicester Square, not too great a distance from the family home in Soho. Catherine was 21 at the time and could neither read nor write; she signed the marriage register with an X. William patiently taught her and, and, in tim time, he began egan to hel help him him with the pri printing ting of his his engravings and the tinting and binding of his books. She proved to be as good good wife wife.. She She ador adored ed her her husb husban and, d, whom whom sh she e alwa always ys addresses as “Mr. Blake”. She managed their resources with thrift and good nature. When the cupboard was bare, she said nothing, but set an empty platter on the table as a reminder that the family brea breadw dwin inne nerr need needed ed to earn earn some some mone money. y. Ab Abov ove e all all sh she e had had patience; often at night, when the mood of inspiration was upon him, she sat by his side for hours without moving, simply being there to lend what support she could as he worked furiously at his writing or painting. In the next year Blake's Poetical Sketches were published, and there was even talk of raising a subscription to send him to study in Rome. Blake earned a fair living as an engraver, and young couple went about in society. In the summer of 1784, Blake's father died. While the eldest son, James, took over the hosiery business in number 28, Blake and his wife moved into the next-door house at 27 Broad Street. There he set up in business as a print seller in partnership with James Parker. The partnership lasted only three years, and in 1787 Blake moved to a house around the corner in Poland Street. In the same year his beloved youngest brother, Robert, died. Blake sat by him during his last illness, and claimed to see his spirit pass through the ceiling on its way to heaven. Blake said that the spirit of Robert came to him 'in a vision in the night' and revealed the secret technique for combining text and picture on a single printing plate. In 1788, Blake started work on the first of his illuminated books using this method. His first efforts were in simple, chapbook style, but by 1789, The Songs of Innocence had been completed with Blake and his wife hand-producing the book. In
the words of Blake's first biographer Alexander Gilchrist, they did everything 'except manufacturing the paper'. Blak Blake e was was exci excite ted d at the the poss possib ibil ilit ity y of trea treati ting ng the the page page as an artistic whole, in which the poems and pictures together conveyed as deep deeper er meani eaning ng than than eith either er coul could d do alon alone. e. He was also also convinced, mistakenly, that this would be more economical than the prevailing method of printing the text by letter-press and engraving the pictorial matter separately. It is almost impossible by hand to cut the lettering into a metal plate backwards so that it will then make make a clea clearr and and even even impr impres essi sion on when when prin printe ted d in reve revers rse e on pape paper. r. Blak Blake e disc discov over ered ed a meth method od whic which h prov proved ed impo imposs ssib ible le to th duplicate until the middle of the 20 century. In July of the same year, 1789, the people of Paris stormed the Bastille, and the French Revolution had begun. Like the American War for Independence, this event fired Blake’s imagination. Blake saw saw the the revo revolu luti tion on as a stru strugg ggle le towa toward rds s sp spir irit itua uall free freedo dom m. Politically and religiously, he was a radical, meaning he believed that people should have freedom and equal rights within a lawabiding abiding society. society. Blake's Blake's work became became more more overtly overtly political political after the upheavals in France in 1789. His poem The French Revolution, though printed in 1791 by Joseph Johnson (publisher of Tom Paine's Rights of Man), Man), was deemed too dangerous to actually publish. Lambeth was still a village when Blake and his wife moved to No. 13 Hercules Buildings Buildings in 1791. A much larger house than any Blake had lived in before, it provided the light and space that he needed for his work. Blake now entered upon the most creative and productive period of his life. His services as an engraver were much in demand, he had several pupils to whom he taught drawing, but, possessed of enormous energy, he was able to devote many hours during these Lambeth years to his own poetry and painting. His interest in the political and social developments of his own day was by no means dormant, nor was his gift for writing lyrics. His mood had changed, however. In France, King Louis had been sent to the guillotine, the Reign of Terror was in full swing, and the armies of the French Republic invaded and annexed part of the Neth Nether erla land nds. s. In Engl Englan and, d, the the Crow Crown, n, su supp ppor orte ted d by the the Chur Church ch,, pushed its preparations for war. Blake gave voice to his own disillusionment in a new volume of short lyric poems: Songs of Innocence and Experience. Experience. To the plates of Songs of Innocence, Innocence, he added a parallel series, whose verse and decorations emphasized the dark and tragic aspects of life on earth. Blak Blake e becam became e more more and and more more depr depres esse sed. d. The The war war with with Fran France ce strained the British economy. High prices and low wages brought famine and bread riots to London. His own style of engraving was
regarded as old-fashioned, and commissions dried up. Times were hard, and the Blakes only just managed to eke out a living. By 1800, work was scarce and life was hard, so it seemed like a stroke of luck when William Hayley, an eccentric gentleman poet, invited Blake down to live on his estate in Sussex. Sussex. The Blakes were glad to leave the 'terrible desert of London' for 'sweet Felpham'. William Blake, letter to John Flaxman about Felpham (21st September, 1800)
We safely arrived at our cottage, which is more beautiful than I thought and more convenient. Mr. Hayley received us with his usual brotherly affection. I have begun to work. Felpham is a sweet place for study, because it is more spiritual than London. Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates; her windows are not obstructed by vapours. William Blake, letter to Thomas Butts about Felpham (21st September, September, 1800)
We are safe arrived at our cottage without accident or hindrance. We had seven different chaises and as many different drivers. We travelled through a most beautiful country on a most glorious day. Our cottage is beautiful. If I should ever build a palace it would be only my cottage enlarged. The villagers of Felpham are polite and modest. Meat is cheaper than in London. The sweet air and voices of winds, trees and birds, and the odours of the happy ground, makes it a dwelling for immortals.
Delighted by the natural beauty around him, Blake embarked on his new new life life in Suss Sussex ex with with great great opti optimi mism sm.. Blak Blake e recei receive ved d many many commi commissi ssions ons from from his new patro patron, n, produc producing ing plate plates s for Hayley Hayley's 's ballad Little Little Tom the Sailo Sailor, r, and engrav engravin ings gs for his Ballads Ballads on Anecdotes relating to Animals and for his Life of Cowper. For a while, his depression lifted. The light of sunrise on the sea inspired many visions; as he walked along the sands, the spirits of his brother Robert, of the poet Milton, of Old Testament prophets, and others walked with him. His imagination expanded until each ordinary leaf and thistle produced a miracle for his inward eye. But But by 18 1802 02,, the the situ situat atio ion n had had sour soured ed.. Blak Blake e grew grew tire tired d of the the endless stream of trivial commissions from Hayley and his society neighbours. He had no wish to waste his talents painting a series of great poets' portraits for Hayley's new library, or handscreens for his neighbour, Lady Bathurst. The next year Blake wrote a letter to his patron Butts stating that only in London that he could 'carry on his visionary studies...see visions, dream dreams'. To make matters worse, in August 1803 Blake had driven a soldier, Private Private John Schofield Schofield,, out of his garden garden,, allege allegedly dly utteri uttering ng the trea treaso sono nous us word words s 'Dam 'Damn n the the king king.. The The sold soldie iers rs are are all all slav slaves es.' .' Sche Schedu dule led d to be put put on tria triall for for sedi sediti tion on,, Blak Blake e move moved d back back to London in late 1803, thoroughly sick of his officious patron, of his 25
damp cottage and of the law. He briefly returned to Sussex in early 1804 and was acquitted to the riotous approval of the court. Blake's optimism about his return to London was ill-founded. At his new lodgings on the first floor of No. 17 South Moulton Street, he bega began n work work on the the illu illum minat inated ed book books, s, Milton and Jerusalem. However, commercial work proved even more elusive than it had before. 'Art in London flourishes,' he wrote, 'yet no one brings work to me'. When When the the publ publis ishe herr Robe Robert rt Crom Cromek ek appr approa oach ched ed him him to both both illustrate and engrave the poet Robert Blair's Grave, Blake's luck seemed to have taken a turn for the better. The The disap disappoi pointm ntment ent was only only the more more inten intense, se, theref therefor ore, e, when when Cromek ultimately chose the artist Schiavonetti to engrave Blake's illustrations instead of Blake himself. The Grave proved a success, but but Bla Blake recei eceive ved d littl ttle financ nanciial rewar eward d. He now now beca becam me increasingly paranoid and cantankerous, breaking off from most of his friends and patrons. Poverty and obscurity dogged him for the remainder of his life. In 1806, 1806, Crome Cromek k teamed teamed up with with the artis artistt Thomas Thomas Stothard Stothard to produce a painting and engraving of Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims. Pilgrims. Blak Blake e clai claim med they they had had stol stolen en the idea dea fro from him him and and when Stothard's work was exhibited to great acclaim, Blake decided to hold a one-man exhibition cantered around his own version of the Canterbury Pilgrims. Unfortunately, he could not afford to show his work in a fashionable part of town, so his exhibition was held in his brother's brother's hosiery hosiery shop in May May 18 1809 09.. Almo Almost st no one one cam came. The The reviews were cruel, mocking Blake as 'an unfortunate lunatic whose pers person onal al inof inoffe fens nsiv iven enes ess s secu secure res s him him from from conf confin inem emen ent' t',, and and dismissing his Descriptive Descriptive Catalogue as 'a farrago of nonsense...and egregious vanity'. By 1810, Blake was impoverished and estranged from his friends and patrons. Indeed his first biographer entitled the chapter dealing with the period period 1810-1817 1810-1817 'Years of Deepening Deepening Neglect'. Neglect'. But Blake continued to work, believing his Jerusalem, his Jerusalem, an epic about war, peace and liberty focused on London, London, to be his finest work. As Blake turned sixty, his work at last began to find passionate admirers among younger artists, such as the watercolourists John Linnell and John Varley. It was Varley who encouraged Blake to draw sketches of his 'spiritual visitants', of which the most famous is The Ghost of a Flea. Linnell, meanwhile, despite being over thirty years Blake's junior, commissioned works for himself, and helped Blake secure commissions from others. It was thanks to his influence that Blake made the woodcuts for Robert Thornton's schooltext of Virgil's
Pastorals in 1821. And Linnell himself ordered a duplicate set of the watercolo watercolours urs of The Book of Job (origina (originally lly produced produced for Thomas Thomas Butts) and commissioned the series of drawings from Dante's Divine Comedy in Comedy in 1824. In 18 1821 21,, Blak Blake e move moved d to a coup couple le of room rooms s in Fountain Fountain Court, Court, Strand, Strand, from which he could see the Thames. His young admirers called called him him 'The 'The Interp Interpret reter' er',, and confid confident ent in the judgem judgement ent of posterity, he grew into a gentler and less angry man. In the spring of 1827, Blake fell ill. A friend at his deathbed said he died 'singing of the things he saw in heaven' on August 12 at the age age of sixt sixtyy-ni nine ne.. He was was buri buried ed in an unma unmark rked ed grav grave e in the the dissenters' graveyard at Bunhill Fields. Fields. One of his last acts had been to draw a picture of Catherine, his loyal wife and helpmate, from his deathbed.
Unknown, unappreciated except by a few of his contemporaries for most ost of his his fift fifty y adul adultt year years, s, Will Willia iam m Blak Blake e work worked ed with with unflagging zeal at projects of his own. The period into which he was born in 1757 has been called the Age of Reason. Reason. The prevaili prevailing ng rational rationalist ist philosop philosophy hy taught taught that, from the evidence of his five senses, man could deduce those natural laws that govern the universe and human life, laws both corr correc ectt and and unal unalte tera rabl ble. e. For For the the rati ration onal alis ists ts,, Scie Scienc nce, e, not not Natu Nature re,, was was the the high highes estt expr expres essi sion on of God. God. The The orde orderl rly y progr progress ess of the stars stars provid provided ed all the testim testimony ony needed needed to prove His existence. The educated classes were prosperous and self-satisfied. Reason, order, restraint: these were the ideal virtues in religion and in the arts, as well as in daily life. Painters strove to achieve the likeness of natur nature e by what what we would would now call call photog photograp raphic hic repres represent entati ation. on. Poets avoided the expression of emotion and concentrated on the elegance of their versification. An extreme example of the “poetry” popular in the late 18th century was a dissertation in Latin verse on the cultivation of broccoli. Behi Behind nd the the sere serene ne faça façade de,, howe howeve ver, r, ther there e were were rumb rumbli ling ngs s of explosions to come. The working classes strained against the virtual slavery in which they were held; vigorous democratic spirits chafed under the restrictions restrictions of political morality; the conventional morality of the the Chur Church ch,, desi design gned ed to keep keep ever everyo yone ne in his his plac place, e, was was incr increa easi sing ngly ly rese resent nted ed.. Youn Young g arti artist sts s and and poet poets s depl deplor ored ed the the
accepted rules that reduced the sublime and the beautiful to the polite, the pretty, and the clever. In short, freedom was in the air. Before the century was out, it had found expression in a multitude of new new reli religi giou ous s sect sects, s, new new idea ideas s for for soci social al refo reform rm,, and and more more violen violently tly in the Ameri American can and Frenc French h Revol Revoluti utions ons.. Young Young Blake Blake embraced these new ideas and made them his own. In his earliest work work,, we can can see see emer emergi ging ng the the conc concep eptt whic which h obse obsess ssed ed him him throughout his later life: man’s spirit must be free to develop and fulfil itself. Imagination is the only route back to God. “Every thing that lives is holy” is one of his favourite lines, and that which is holy struggles inevitably to reunite itself with God. Therefore, away with false restraints that stand in its way! In his his life life,, Blak Blake e play played ed out out many many vari variat atio ions ns of this this them theme. e. In politics, he was an anarchist and revolutionary. Although his own conduct was that of a law-abiding citizen, in theory, he deplored law and government. As he saw it, if the divinity in every man is allowed to develop, there is no need for law. On social questions he was a humanitarian. He hated slavery of any kind. He criticized organized charity which boasted of helping the poor while keeping them in semi-starvation. He attacked the established church of his day, not only only as an inst instru rume ment nt for for prot protec ecti ting ng the the stat status us quo, quo, but but for for its its insistence upon repressive sexual morality. In his personal life he was a devoted and faithful husband, but in his verse he preached free love. He did not, however, condone promiscuity. To Blake, love was “fourf “fourfold old”: ”: sp spir iritu itual, al, intel intellec lectua tual, l, and emotio emotional nal,, as well well as physical. In other words, it was the human expression of the love of Christ. From From the basic basic concep conceptt that that “Every “Everythi thing ng that that lives lives is holy” holy” and seeks to unite itself with God, he evolved a complicated system of theology. He could not accept the Jehovah of the Old Testament and of the Ten Commandments as the highest God. To him, the Jesus Christ of love and forgiveness is that God. Originally man and God were one and lived in Eternity, or Innocence, a “heaven” in which four basic human attributes existed together in harmonious tension. This This balanc balance e was upset upset when when Reason Reason became became domin dominant ant.. In the resu result ltin ing g cata catacl clys ysm, m, Reas Reason on fell fell from from Eter Eterni nity ty and and crea create ted d the the material universe, the world of Experience in which we now live, the worl world d of birt birth h and and deat death h and and repr repres essi sion on.. Indi Indivi vidu dual al man was was wrenched from his union with the divine and forced to descend from Innocence into Experience, from the life of the spirit into the life of the material. By using his imagination, his eternal vision, and by struggling to destroy his Spectre or Selfhood, that part of him which clings to mortal existence, man can arise to his union with Christ.
Blake invented a huge and extensive mythology to explain his view of crea creati tion on.. Howe Howeve ver, r, we will will be inte intere rest sted ed in it only only as it is expressed in his Songs of Innocence and Experience: Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. It is difficult for us in the 21st century to realize that none of Blake’s poems were published, in the usual sense, during his lifetime. His earliest verses were privately printed, but few copies reached the publ public ic.. The The meth method od he deve develo lope ped d for for engr engrav avin ing g the the Song Songs s so satisf satisfied ied his his artist artist’s ’s need need that that he used used it, varyin varying g the techni technical cal details from time to time, for all his major works. The process was tedious, however, and he had no gift for advertising his wares. Very few of his books, consequently, were distributed beyond a small circ circle le of his his frie friend nds s and and patr patron ons. s. The The iron irony y is that that Blak Blake e was was “discovered” soon after his death, and his works, particularly the Songs of Innocence and Experience, Experience, were recognized as the genius of a singular and unique spirit. Blake has much to say to our day as well as his own. Man’s natural energy and imagination cannot be suppressed without damage to the the indi indivi vidu dual al and and to soci societ ety. y. Life Life cann cannot ot be rich rich unle unless ss man man develops his imaginative powers, his awareness of forces greater than himself, and learns to practise love and forgiveness rather than the domination and exploitation of his fellows and his environment.
SONGS OF INNOCENCE & OF EXPERIENCE SONGS OF INNOCENCE 1789
The first book William Blake produced according to the method revealed to him in a dream by his brother Robert was Songs of Innocence , a lovely little volume of 27 illuminated plates, each approximately 3 by 5 inches in size. At first glance, the poems and their decorations appear to be for and about young children. Many of the verses are today included in anthologies for younger readers. Blake was a mature poet, however, and in his simple lines he expressed some of his deepest thoughts about mankind, God, and their relationship. By Innocence, Blake means not so much the state of childhood itself as the condition that the idea of childhood childhood invokes: sweetness, sweetness, simplicity, simplicity, unrestrained unrestrained love, and the ability to accept life in all its aspects as a source of joy. Blake’s Innocence is the innocence of the Garden of Eden before the Fall. It is the condition of the human soul before the Fall and as it will be in Eternity. He believes, indeed, that there is some unhappiness in Eternity, but no real evil. Eternity may be the Garden of Eden without the serpent. Children may be lost and frightened, but their fears are overcome; even the exploitation of the weak by the cruel is made bearable by faith in God’s love, which suggests that Eternity can be found before death in this life. The verses which express these ideas are simple, musical and tender. Metres are borrowed from ballads, from singing games, and from Mother Goose rhymes; images from meadows, pastures and playgrounds. The decorations are delicate, painted in light colours, and filled with flowers and leafy vines, dancing children, lambs, and tiny angels. The deeper significance of some of these poems is hidden in certain symbols which Blake uses here fore the first time, but which he will use again and again in his later books of poetry. A lamb, or Lamb, usually represents Jesus, the Lamb of God who taketh the sins of the world. Night is the world of Experience, this mortal world in which nature is often harsh and man cruel to his fellows. Other references are hard to understand unless one knows something about the age in which Blake lived. He was deeply concerned with the problems of his day and assumed that his readers would recognise the references. William and Catherine bound each of the original volumes by hand, and varied the arrangements of the plates from copy to copy. Because there is no fixed order to go by, the poems are usually grouped arbitrarily, according to similarities of imagery or subject matter.
Along with its later companion companion collection collection , Songs of Experience , Songs of Innocence represents Blake's most famous work and his third example of illuminated printing. Contai Containin ning g numer numerous ous poems poems that that have have become become standa standard rd anthol anthology ogy pieces pieces (“The (“The Lamb,” Lamb,” “The “The Chimne Chimney y Sweep, Sweep,”” “Holy “Holy Thursd Thursday, ay,”” etc.), etc.), the collec collectio tion n featur features es nineteen poems and twenty-seven illustrative plates. As Blake Blake intend intended ed the terms, terms, “inno “innocen cence” ce” descri describes bes man's man's state state before before the Fall; Fall; “exper “experien ience,” ce,” man's man's condit condition ion after after the Fall. Fall. Blake Blake schola scholarr Geoffre Geoffrey y Keynes Keynes has stated, “The Innocence poems were the products of a mind in a state of innocence and of an imagin imaginatio ation n unspo unspoile iled d by stains stains of world worldlin liness ess.. Public Public events events and privat privatee emotions soon converted Innocence into Experience, producing Blake's preoccupation with the problem of Good and Evil.” As in his other illuminated works, Blake intended the visual images to be symbols that would reinforce the text of his poems. Like most of the other poems in Songs of Innocence, the famous poem “The Lamb” has its parallel in Songs of Experience in “The Tyger.”
SONGS OF EXPERIENCE 1794
Five years after the appearance of Songs of Innocence , Blake completed another small series of plates of decorated verses, using the same simple metres, but in an entirely different mood. These he engraved and bound together with the earlier poems in an enlarged enlarged volume volume entitled, entitled, Songs Songs of Innocen Innocence ce and Experience: Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. To Blake, the world of Experience is a world of disillusionment in which the childlike soul of Innocence meets the harshness of nature and the cruelty of man, and of man’s institutions. Many of these songs are bitter; the decorations are often bleak, dark, dark, filled filled with with dead dead trees, trees, wiltin wilting g flower flowers, s, dead dead or dying dying figure figures, s, graves graves and tombstones. These poems, in which symbols become both more important and more obscure, reflect Blake’s own disillusionment with the turn of events. In 1789, the outbreak of the French Revolution had given him hope that humanity was at last about to break the chains of its slavery and to establish a new Golden Age of freedom. By 1793, however, the Revolution had given way to the Reign of Terror in France, Louis XVI and his queen Marie Antoinette had been sent to the guillotine, and conservative governments throughout Europe had risen against the revolutionaries. George III of England and his Prime Minister, William Pitt, prepared for war. Poor crops, coinciding with the demands of the military, forced food prices up while wages remained low. The common people, especially in London, suffered severely. Social reforms, which had seemed possible to achieve in the late 1780’s, were pushed aside, and would-be reformers looked upon as dangerous subversives. It was a time of general distress.
Blake still held to his philosophy that free creative energy is the channel of man’s communion with God. Now, however, his attention was focused upon the efforts of the Crown, Parliament, and the established Church of England to restrain that energy and upon upon the rationa rationalis listt philos philosoph ophy y underly underlying ing them. them. This This philos philosoph ophy y promot promoted ed reason and materialism, and denied the spiritual, imaginative significance of life as Blake saw it. To emphasize the difference between the two contrary states, Blake composed at least one Song of Experience for each Song of Innocence . Som Some of the the late laterr poem poemss are are paro parodi dies es of earl earlie ierr ones. nes. In many many cas cases, es, the the corresponding verses bear identical, or obviously contrasting, titles; in others, the links are made apparent by the similarity of the subject, of verse form, or of the apparent decoration.
SONGS OF INNOCENCE and of of EXPERIENCE In the combined volume there are forty-six poems in all. All of them are short, some very short indeed. All are written in an apparently simple style, and the most usual verse form is the rhymed quatrain (stanza of four four line lines) s).. Blak Blakee is uniq unique ue amon among g majo majorr poet poetss in Engl Englis ish h befo before re the the 20th century in not using the most convention line, the pentameter (five-foot line) which was common to writers writers from Shakespeare Shakespeare and Milton through to Pope and beyond. The The line liness Blak Blakee uses uses in the the Song Songss are are shorter, typically the tetrameter (four-foot line), as he found it in the popular forms of his day (hymns and nursery rhymes, and also the ballad, which had a very significant influence on Blake. (The ballad is a traditional traditional poem or song which tells a story in simple, colloquial language.) The poems of Innocence and the poems of Experience are meant to convey two different views of human life. In the state of Innocence, we look at things freshly, we look at natural objects and wonder at them, finding in them a child’s simple apprehension of beauty. In the state of Experience, this vision is darkened by adults fears and anxieties; we begin to ask questions about whether what we see is actually the case, about how there can be evil in a good God’s creation, about the causes of human suffering. In the state of Experience, we might say we begin to feel the effects of alienation; this may mean we see the world more deeply, but it also means that we see it more painfully. Think how you yourself, as
you pass from childhood into adulthood, are coming to recognise how complicated and uncertain the world actually is. But we must ask ourselves this question: is the perspective of Experience a ‘truer’ one than that of Innocence, or is it a stage through which we have to pass in order to achieve an even higher truth – a truth we might call Innocence Regained? What did Blake mean by ‘Innocence’, and how is it different from ignorance? To whom are the Songs of Innocence addressed – are they meant to be ready by children? Perhaps they are meant to be read by us as if we were children? If the state of Innocence corresponds to childhood, do the Songs of Experience represent an adult perspective? And if they do, then are we to see this adult perspective as a corrective to the the chil childh dhoo ood d view, iew, or as the the reco recog gniti nitio on of our Fall all fro from the the Stat Statee of Grace/Innocence? Is there implicit in the poems a ‘third view’, as Blake sometimes seems to have said, which is beyond both Innocence and Experience? And where, behind all this, is the narrator of the poems, and how can we describe that narrator? Perhaps we have to say at the end of the day that to ‘fix’ Blake in any one position is virtually impossible task; but equally it might be better to say that he presents a continuing challenge to the reader, and this challenge is what has intrigued so many of Blake’s readers for nearly 200 years. William Blake challenges us to consider what it means to be fully human, and, by extension, what it means to be fully divine.
Blake’s Spelling & Punctuation
For whatever reason, Blake gives certain words spellings that were old-fashioned even in his day. These are not merely careless misspellings, as is evident from his consis consisten tentt use of them: them: “tyger “tyger”” for “tiger “tiger”, ”, “desa “desart” rt” for “dese “desert”, rt”, “receiv “received” ed” for “received”, etc. He uses capital letters according to some obscure, often inconsistent, system of his own. His punctuation leaves something to be desired; in the illuminated books, tiny flourishes or designs often replace commas, semi-colons and periods. When Blake writes out the final suffix “ed”, he means it to pronounced as a separate syllable. This “bed” rhymes with “echoed”, which as three syllables, not two. If the sound “e” is to be elided, there will be an apostrophe before the “d”, as in “pluck’d”, In 1794 Blake produced his second collection of poems, Songs of Experience, linking it with his earlier Songs earlier Songs of Innocence to produce two sets of companion poems, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. The second volume added twenty-five poems and twenty-seven plates (one poem was not published in any copies during Blake's lifetime), giving a total of forty-four poems and fifty-four accompanying plates. In the combined publication, Blake rearranged many of the poems and plates, transferring some of the poems from Innocence to
Experience. Blake colored the plates to the poems almost up to his death in 1827, the colorization becoming increasingly more elaborate; although the sequence became standardized after 1815. The Songs of Innocence and of Experience proved to be the most popular of Blake's illumi illuminate nated d texts texts and is now now regard regarded ed as a semina seminall work work of Engli English sh Romant Romantic ic literature.
A BLAKE TUTORIAL Introduction
William Blake was born on 28 November 1757, and died on 12 August 1827; he spent his life largely in London, save for the years 1800 to 1803, when he lived in a cottage at Felpham, near the seaside town of Bognor, in Sussex. In 1767 he began to attend Henry Pars's drawing school in the Strand. At the age of fifteen, Blake was apprenticed to an engraver, making plates from which pict pictu ures for for boo books were ere prin rinted ted. He later ater wen went to the the Royal oyal Acad Ac adem emy, y, and and at 22 22,, he was empl emplo oyed yed as an engr engrav aver er to a bookseller and publisher. When he was nearly 25, Blake married Catherine Bouchier. They had no children but were happily married for almost 45 years. In 1784, a year after he published his first volume of poems, Blake set up his own engraving business. Blake's first published work, Poetical Sketches, appeared in 1783. Blake's writings are a curious mixture: he wrote short prose pieces, filled with proverbs and strange spectacles, such as There is No Natu Natura rall Reli Religi gion on and and The The Marr Marria iage ge of Heav Heaven en and and Hell Hell;; long long mysterio mysterious us poems poems mixing mixing the poet's poet's own mytholog mythology y with details from from the Bible Bible and class classica icall mythol mythology ogy,, and decept deceptive ively ly simpl simple e short lyric poems. The The well-k well-know nown n hymn hymn beginn beginning ing:: “A “And nd did did those those feet in ancien ancientt time/W time/Walk alk upon upon Englan England's d's mount mountain ains s green? green?” ” is the prefa preface ce to Blake's long poem Milton. It is sometimes called Jerusalem (a city Blake refers to in the last but one line) but this is a mistake, as Blake wrote another poem with this title. Nowadays, readers chiefly value Blake's short lyrics. Some excellent pieces were not published in Blake's lifetime, but come from manuscripts (hand-written books), yet most of the best poems are found in two collections: Songs of Inno Innoce cenc nce e (178 (1789) 9) to whic which h was was adde added, d, in 17 1794 94,, the the Song Songs s of Experience (unlike the earlier work, never published on its own). The com complet plete e 17 1794 94 coll collec ecti tion on was was call called ed Song Songs s of Inno Innoce cenc nce e and and Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. Blake Blake had very firm firm ideas ideas about about how his poems poems shoul should d appear appear.. Although spelling was not as standardised in print as it is today, Blake was writing some time after the publication of Dr. Johnson's authorit authoritative ative Dictionary Dictionary of the English English Language (1755). Many of Blake's spellings which seem odd or old-fashioned to us, must have struck his readers, too, as quaint. Blake similarly used non-standard forms of punctuation, especially using the ampersand (&) in place of the word “and” (today this is only normal in business names). In keeping with his profession, Blake did not print his poems in type, but engraved them (like handwriting) on an illustrated background. The printed copies were then coloured by hand: Blake was an artist
in words words and pictur pictures. es. Comme Comments nts that that follo follow w refer refer to indiv individu idual al poems, and ways of looking at all five lyrics, in terms of subject, theme, mood, techniques, and so on.
The Tyger Blake was regarded in his time as very strange, but many of his idea ideas s make make sens sense e to the the mode modern rn read reader er.. When When this this poem poem was was writte written n it was most unusua unusuall for writers writers to sh show ow inter interest est in wild wild animals. People did not have access to wildlife documentaries on television, as we do today: exotic animals might be seen in circuses and zoos, but tigers would be a rarity, perhaps turning up stuffed or as rugs (this was to become very common in the 19th century). Just as today the tiger is a symbol of (endangered) wildlife, so for Blake, the animal is important as a symbol - but of what? One clue is to be found in the comparison with The Lamb (see the next poem, and the fifth stanza of this one). Blake's images defy simple explanation: we cannot be certain what he wants us to think the tiger represents, but something of the majesty and power of God's creation in the natural world seems to be present. Blake's spelling in the title (The Tyger) at once suggests the exotic or alien quality of the beast. The memorable opening couplet (pair of rhyming lines) points to the contrast of the dark “forest of the nigh night” t” (whi (which ch su sugg gges ests ts an unkn unknow own n and and host hostil ile e plac place) e) and and the the intense “burning” brightness of the tiger's colouring: Blake writes here with a painter's eye. The questions that follow are directed at the tiger, though they are as much questions for the reader. They are of the kind sometimes called called rhetor rhetorica icall (frequ (frequent ently ly used used in publi public c speaki speaking, ng, rheto rhetori ric c in Greek) because no answer is given. However, these are questions to which the answer is far from obvious. For example, the answer to the first question might be “God's” (“immortal hand or eye”), but Blake is asking not so much “whose?” as “what kind of?” We are challenged to imagine someone or something so powerful as to be able able to crea create te this this anim animal al.. The The idea idea that that the the tige tigerr is made made by someone with hands and eyes suggests the stories in the Biblical book of Genesis, where God walks in the Garden of Eden and shuts Noah in his ark. It is again the painter and engraver who observes the complexity of the tiger's markings in their “fearful symmetry”. The sensitive human artist is awe-struck by the divine artistry. Blake asks where the fire in the tiger's eyes originates. It is as if some utterly daring person has seized this fire and given it to the tiger (as, in Greek myth, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to men). The poet is amazed at the complexity of the tiger's
inner workings (“the sinews of thy heart”), at the greater power that set the heart heart beati beating, ng, and wonders wonders how the anima animal's l's brain was forged: “What the hammer...in what furnace...what the anvil?” The penultimate (last but one) stanza takes us back to Genesis and the creation story there: on each of the six days (He rested on the seventh) God looked at His work and “saw that it was good”. God is represented as being pleased with His creation, but Blake wonders whether this can be true of the tiger. If so, it is not easy to see how the same creator should have ave made ade The Lamb. The poem appropriately ends, apparently with the same question with which it started, but the change of verb from “could” to “dare” makes it even more forceful. This poem is not so much about the tiger as it really is, or as a zoologist might present it to us; it is the Tyger, as it appears to the eye of the beholder. Blake imagines the tiger as the embodiment of God' God's s powe powerr in creat creatio ion: n: the the anim animal al is terr terrif ifyi ying ng in its its beau beauty ty,, strength, complexity and vitality. The Lamb In The The Tyge Tygerr Blak Blake e poin points ts to the the cont contra rast st betw betwee een n thes these e two two animals: the tiger is fierce, active, predatory, while The Lamb is meek, vulnerable and harmless. In the first stanza Blake, as in The Tyger, asks questions, and these are again directed to the animal, although the reader has less difficulty guessing the answer, which the poet in any case gives in the second stanza. The picture of The Lamb's feeding “by the stream and o'er the mead” (=meadow) is a beautiful one, which suggests God's kindness in creation, and has an echo of similar descriptions in the Old Testament book of Psalms (especially Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”) and the parables of Jesus. In the second stanza, Blake reminds The Lamb, and us, that the God who made The Lamb, also is like The Lamb. As well as becoming a child (like the speaker of the poem) Jesus became known as The Lamb of God: Jesus was crucified during the Feast of the Passover (cel (celeb ebra rati ting ng the the Jews Jews'' esca escape pe from from Egyp Egypt) t) when when lamb lambs s were were slaughtered in the temple at Jerusalem. This was believed to take away the sins of the people who took part in the feast. So when Jesus was killed, for the sins of all people, according to the Christian faith, He came to be called The Lamb of God. Although this is an image mainly of meekness and self-sacrifice, in the last book of the Bible (Revelation) Jesus appears as a Lamb with divine powers, who defeats the Anti-Christ and saves mankind. Blake's poem seems to be mainly about God's love shown in his care for The Lamb and the child and about the apparent paradox, that God became both child and Lamb in coming, as Jesus, into the world.
The Tyger and The Lamb go well together, because in them, Blake examines different, almost opposite or contradictory, ideas about the natural world, its creatures and their Creator. How do you see the two animals depicted? What images do you find interesting, and what do they tell you? The 1794 collection, remember, was called Songs of Innocence and Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul: explain how these poems show “contrary states”. How, in these these two poems, does Blake Blake explore explore different different ideas ideas about God and nature? Which do you find more appealing (if either) and why? Both poems use simple rhymes and regular metre. Does this mean the the ideas ideas in the the poem poems s are are simp simple le,, too? too? Give Give reas reason ons s for for your your answer. A useful exercise here (as with all the poems) is to present the poems either as Blake did (this will require some research), or as you imagine he might have done. That is to say, you should use a handwriting style which seems appropriate, and illustrate/decorate the background or surrounding area. You could use this copy for familiarising yourself with the poems. You might like to use Blake's original spelling and punctuation .
A Poison Tree In this this poem poem and and the the two two whic which h foll follow ow it, it, a cent centra rall metap etapho horr explains a truth of human nature. A Poison Tree shares with The Human Abstract the image of a tree as it grows, while in London the image is of manacles: all of these Songs of Experience show the dark side of human nature. A Poison Tree tells how anger can be dispelled by goodwill or nurtured to become a deadly poison. It is appr approp opri riat ate e that that poem poems s touc touchi hing ng on Bibl Biblic ical al them themes es sh shou ould ld be parables, not unlike those of Jesus, in which a spiritual or abstract meaning is expressed in a vivid, picturesque story. The The open openin ing g stan stanza za is amon among g the the most most dece decept ptiv ivel ely y simp simple le and and memo memora rabl ble e of all all Blak Blake' e's s lyri lyrics cs:: the the form form of each each coup couple lett is grammatically the same, but substituting four words wholly alters the meaning, meaning, from the ending ending of anger anger with with the “friend “friend” ” to the continuing anger with the “foe”. Blake does not tell us what is growing (although we may guess this to be the tree of the title) but it is evidently a plant of some kind: the real “fears” and “tears” are what metaphorically metaphorically water the plant
(encourage his hatred?), and “smiles” and “deceitful wiles” are as the sunshine which makes it grow: the reader at once grasps the simp simple le natu natura rall meta metaph phor or,, and and the the deep deep ps psyc ycho holo logi gica call trut truth h it expresses. At length the tree grows to bear a single fruit, which the “foe” wants because he supposes the speaker to value it: “And he knew that it was mine”. The sequel is shocking: the foe steals the apple and eats it, not knowing that it is poisonous: “In the morning glad I see/My foe outstretched beneath the tree”. As we remember that this is a metaphor we realise that literal murder (of the body) is not what Blake describes but some profound spiritual, or (as we would now say) psychological harm is meant. This is a horrible poem because it depicts with appalling honesty the hatred of which man is capable and the cunning with which we can conceal our anger. The anger depicted here is not the anger we call the heat of the moment, but “wrath”, one of the seven deadly sins, a brooding, festering desire to get even at all a ll costs. The apple of the third stanza reminds us of the story of Adam and Eve. In the biblical account, God forbids the couple to eat the fruit of “the tree of knowledge”, but this fruit is commonly represented as an apple apple (this (this detail detail appear appears s in mediae mediaeval val carol carols s and in Milton Milton's 's poem, Paradise Lost). Another apple which caused trouble was the golden apple from the garden of the Hesperides, which Paris, prince of Troy, gave to Aphrodite, goddess of love, in preference to Athena and Hera. As a symbol of irresistible temptation, the apple is deeply convincing. The enemy is almost as wily as the speaker, waiting until a night which which has “veiled “veiled the pole”. pole”. This This “pole” “pole” could mean mean simply simply the hemisphere which surrounds the pole or, some critics suggest, the Pole Star: a very bright star used for navigation; if this is what Blake means then a night which “veiled the pole” (with fog, say) would be excep excepti tion onal ally ly blac black. k. The The meta metaph phor or su sugg gges ests ts the the dark darkne ness ss,, the the inscrutable mystery of evil: we cannot see it at work, but we can see its results later. Perhaps, though, the most shocking word in the poem poem is “g “gla lad” d”.. This This is not not the the inno innoce cent nt glad gladne ness ss of a clea clearr cons consci cien ence ce,, but but the the almo almost st diab diabol olic ical al self self-s -sat atis isfa fact ctio ion n of the the poison poisoner. er. The trium triumpha phall gloat gloating ing is miles miles away away from from the simpl simple e reconciliation of the poem's opening couplet. The poem perfectly unites the simple extended image, and the deep human truth it illustrates.
The Human Abstract The title and the last stanza of this poem make it clear that the tree described here is a symbol of an “abstract” quality found in “the
human brain”. This is less easy to understand than the evil of anger, which Blake explains in A Poison Tree, but again the poet is aware of the “Two Contrary States of the Human Soul” and the “Mystery” (Stanza 4) of the tree which “bears the fruit of deceit”, and in which the Raven, the omen of death, “his nest has made”. The poem's opening reminds us of Jesus words to Judas Iscariot (John's Gospel, Chapter 12, verse 8): “the poor always ye have with you”. What was meant by Jesus as a shrewd comment on poverty (that it will never wholly go away) has been taken by some readers of the gospels to be a kind of universal law: that there must be losers if there are also to be winners, and Blake states this idea in his opening couplet: that “pity” (compassion, (compassion, a good thing) depends on there being some people who are “poor”. The key word here is “make” - as if we force people into poverty so that they can receive our “pity”. Instead of a fair society, the rich give handouts to the poor, and feel smug about doing so. In the same way, happiness is not allowed to be universal, or no-one would need “Mercy”. Blake may be merely describing the way things are. If he is suggesting how things ought to be, then he does so ironically: he certainly does not approve approve of this this inequa inequali lity. ty. The ideas ideas in this this first first stanza stanza are clearly relevant to our own times, but would have been thought very shocki shocking ng in Blake' Blake's s time, time, when when Brit British ish societ society y was was organ organise ised d on principles of clear inequality. In the four central stanzas, Blake's argument becomes less clear, but a number of things are worthy of note: that “peace”, usually a good thing, may be the result of “mutual fear” (Blake anticipates in a single line the modern idea of deterrence - that peace is achieved by would-be enemies living in fear of each other), and how, in “The Huma Human n Ab Abst strract” act”,, good good thin things gs like like “h “hol oly y fear fears” s”,, “tea “tearrs” and and “Humi “Humili lity” ty”,, are mixed mixed up with with wicked wickedne ness ss - “mutu “mutual al fear” fear”,, “the “the selfis selfish h loves loves” ” and “cruel “cruelty” ty” - in “the “the dis disma mall shade/ shade/Of Of Myste Mystery” ry”.. Cruelty, as he “knits a snare” or “spreads his baits” is likened to a pitiless hunter (snares and baits would be used to catch small game; “his “h is” ” su sugg gges ests ts a pers person on,, not not an abst abstra ract ctio ion) n) whil while e the the idea idea of sickne sickness ss or corrup corruptio tion n is sugges suggested ted by the “Catt “Catterp erpil iller ler and Fly” Fly” which “Feed on the (tree of) Mystery”. As in A Poison Tree there is attr attrac acti tive ve frui fruit, t, thou though gh we do not not know know who who is to eat eat it. it. The The “thickest shade”, where the “Raven” nests, suggests the secrecy and obscurity of the “Human Abstract” here described. The final stanza gives us the key to the poem: the “Gods” sought “in vain” in the natural world for such a tree, but the poet knows it is fou found “in the the Human uman Brain” ain” - that that its exi existenc tence e is real eal, but metaph metaphori orical cal,, rather rather than than liter literal. al. The tree tree and its its fruit fruit sugges suggestt particularly the tree, in Genesis, of the knowledge of good and evil: as man man has has eate eaten n the the frui fruitt of this this tree tree,, so he has gain gained ed this this
forbidden knowledge, which is particularly the subject of the poem's first two stanzas. This poem is hard to understand in its entirety, but rewards close study. It contains some striking images, and the opening stanza is a challengi challenging ng statemen statementt of the problems problems faced by those those who want to create a fair society - or, perhaps, of the reasons why a fair society will never be realised. The poem obviously has much in common with A Poison Tree in Blake's choice of central metaphor, and in how this image is developed to symbolise, in complex ways, truths about human nature which would be less clear and interesting if explained in abstract terms.
London Thi This s is a poem poem that that makes akes sens sense e to the the mode modern rn read reader er,, as it exposes the gulf between those in power and the misery of poor people. The picture of the city as a place of nightmare is common in the 20th century, but is perhaps surprising to find in such an early text as this. We have to wait for the novels of Dickens and James Thomson's Victorian Victorian poem The City of Dreadful Night, before we find such a grim view of the city reappearing. Although there are several details which we need to note, we should begin begin with with the centra centrall metaph metaphor or of this this poem, poem, the “min “mind-f d-forg org'd 'd manacles” of the second stanza. Once more a vivid symbol explains a deep human truth. The image of the forge appears in The Tyger (st (stanza anza 4). Here ere Blake ake imagi agines nes the the mind as a for forge wher here “manacles” are made. “Manacles” (for the hands - French les mains) and and sh shac ackl kles es for for the the legs legs,, woul would d be seen seen on conv convic icts ts,, perh perhap aps s passing along the streets on their way to prison or, commonly in London in Blake's time, on their way to ships, for transportation to Australia. For Blake and his readers, the image is a very striking and contemporary one: they will have seen “manacles” and will view them with horror. The image is also an allusion (reference, loose quotation) to an even more famous statement. In 1762, some thirty year years s befo before re Blak Blake e wrot wrote e Lond London on,, the the Swis Swiss s phil philos osop ophe herr Jean Jean- Jacques Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract: “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”. Blake agrees with Rousseau that man's man's lack lack of freedo freedom, m, his his “mana “manacle cles” s” are “min “mind-f d-for org'd g'd” ” - they they com come from from the the idea ideas s and and outl outloo ook k impo impose sed d on us by exte extern rnal al authority. We see this beautifully in the poem's opening: it is a matter of fact that charters were granted to powerful people to control the streets of Lond London on and and even even the the rive river. r. It is absu absurd rd that that the the stre street ets s are are “chartered” (not free to ordinary people) but blatantly so in the case
of the mighty river, which cannot really be controlled by the passing of a law. law. Blake Blake writes writes ironi ironical cally ly of “the “the charte chartered red Thame Thames”. s”. The “weakn “weakness ess” ” and the “woe” (a stron strong g word word in 1794; 1794; =mis =misery ery)) of ever every y pers person on is plai plain n to see see “in “in ever every y face face”, ”, as in thei theirr crie cries, s, whether of adults or babies (stanza 2). Blake Blake gives gives us three three powerf powerful ul examp example les s of this this “weak “weaknes ness” s” and “woe”, starting with the chimney-sweep. As the church building is literally “black'ning” with smoke from the chimneys, so the church as an orga organi nisa sati tion on,, whic which h sh shou ould ld help help the the poor poor,, is blac blacke kene ned, d, metaph metaphori orical cally, ly, with with shame shame at its failu failure re to give give that that help. help. The church should be appalled, as the poet evidently is, by the cry of the “chimney-sweeper”. (There is a pun here: “appals” means “goes pale”, as with fear, but these churches are going black, with smoke and soot.) The second image, of the “hapless” (unfortunate) soldier is topical: the the poem poem was written tten shor hortly tly aft after the the star startt of the the French ench Revolution: this was so bloody an uprising that the figure of speech called hyperbole (=exaggeration) was often used, as blood was said to be running down the walls. Blake shows how the unhappiness of the English soldier could, if its causes were ignored, lead to similar bloodshed here.
But the last image is the most shocking to Blake, as to us: the cry of the child prostitute is the truth behind respectable ideas of marriage. New birth is no happy event but continues the cycle of misery, and the wedding carriage is seen as a hearse, leading to a kind of death (of innocence? of happiness?). The word “plagues” here suggests the sexually transmitted diseases which the “youthful harlot” would contract and pass on to others (men married for convenience but with no desire for their wives), giving her cursing words real destructive power.
Writing about poetry: Each Each poem poem is (or (or sh shou ould ld be) be) uniq unique ue,, but but many many poem poems s can can be explained in terms of certain elements or conventions which are comm common only ly us used ed:: in disc discus ussi sing ng a poem poem,, you you migh mightt cons consid ider er its its subject (what it is obviously about), its theme (what it is about at a deeper deeper level, level, impor importan tantt ideas ideas), ), its its argum argument ent (how (how the ideas ideas are organised), its structure and form (use of stanzas, rhyme, metre and so on), on), its key image images s (word (word-pi -pictu ctures res,, symbo symbols, ls, metap metaphor hors s and similes) and any other effects (like sound-effects, puns, allusions). If there is not much to say on one of these, don't worry: there will always be something worth saying on some of them, if the poem is any good. good. These These diffe differen rentt catego categori ries es are now explai explained ned in more more detail. In your writing they do not need sub-headings, but should normally appear in different paragraphs. Blake's subjects and themes: Although you could consider these apart, in all five of the poems there is a clear connection between the outward subjects and the deep deeper er trut truths hs they they expr expres ess. s. Thus Thus The The Tyge Tygerr and and The The Lamb Lamb are are apparently about a wild and a tame animal, but are really about God's power in creation or the power of the natural world and the nature of God as shown in Jesus. A Poison Tree and The Human Abstract seem to be about mysterious trees with dangerous fruit, but really tell of the “contrary states of the human soul”, while London is obviously about the way some people live unhappy lives but at a deeper level is about how “every” person is miserable.
Argument, structure and form In The Tyger and The Lamb the argument takes the form of a conv conver ersa sati tion on with with the the anim animal al,, to whic which h many any ques questi tion ons s are are addressed (in The Lamb Blake gives the answers). A Poison Tree and The Human Abstract tell short stories, while London appears to describe a personal experience of walking “thro' midnight streets”, expressed in terms of three encounters. The Lamb has a simple form which reflects the structure: one longish stanza of questions, and an equally long stanza of answers. In all the other poems (four or six) four-line stanzas are used to carry the argument. These are in rhymi rhyming ng coupl couplets ets,, except except for London London with with its more more elabor elaborate ate ABAB rhyme-scheme.
Key images: In discussing Blake's poetry it is virtually impossible impossible not to spot what the images are but sometimes almost impossible to say what they mean! In three of the poems, the central image appears in the title; in The Human Abstract the title gives the meaning of the central image, while in London the key image is found in the second stanza. The The othe otherr impo import rtan antt deta detail ils s (of (of exte extend nded ed meta metaph phor ors) s) like like the the “apple” or the raven's “nest” or related images, like “the chartered Thames” or “the marriage hearse” are discussed in the detailed commentaries above. We might also comment on where these images come from. Blake's poems are full of references to nature, but these are not made from direct observation as a naturalist or a poet like Wordsworth makes them: rather nature is understood as in a book for children or in the Bible: we find exotic, fiery tigers, innocent, woolly lambs, magical trees bearing deadly fruit and sinister caterpillars and ravens. The town, which Blake does know, is depicted essentially realistically in London. All of the poems draw on the Bible for their images (in London London this this is less less obvio obvious, us, but the “harl “harlot” ot” and the “new-bor “new-born n infant” can both be found in the Bible). Other effects: Reading these poems might lead you to think that Blake had a very narrow vocabulary, but this is not the case. He makes deliberate repeated use not only of a given word, but a given (often unoriginal) rhymi rhyming ng pair, pair, like like “fears “fears” ” and “tear “tears” s” (find (find this this twice; twice; then then find find “spears” and “tears”, and “hear” and “tear”). In these poems Blake is striving for simplicity (which is why they are Songs). He writes the poem poems s like like folk folk-b -bal alla lads ds or nurs nurser eryy-rh rhym ymes es,, almo almost st.. What What he is sayi saying ng seem seems s so obvi obviou ous s that that we can can atte attend nd to (a far far hard harder er question) what it means. But often the simple style hides a very clever expression. Equally, it is difficult to say what Blake has said with withou outt us usin ing g many many more more word words, s, as with with his his comm commen entt on the the “black'ning church” in London. Blake is especially fond of repetition, either of a whole sentence form (in the opening stanza of A Poison Tre Tree) e) or a sing single le word word or sh shor ortt phra phrase se (as (as with with “In “In ever every. y... ..” ” in London).