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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 William Blake – His Life & Ideas Songs of Innocence Songs of Experience Songs of Innocence and of Experience 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 43 45 04 04 06 06 09 09 10 11 12 12 14 15 16 17 18 19 21 30 32 33 35 02 03
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 behind us, Experience teaches us that the world not only has beauty and truth, but also has a darker side, and that people can be tainted with Hate, Envy, Jealousy, Fear, 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 regain our Innocence by the use of our Imagination. We use our Creative 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 and considerate. And if we are artists we may recreate the 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 should be struggling to build if we want to experience the joys of Innocence Regained. This central idea – Innocence, Experience, and 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 this will be a main focus of our preparation during the weeks before 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 20th 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 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. 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 volume 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 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 reflecting the duality at the heart of Blake’s thinking, Blake’s conception 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 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 world in rhythm with the seasons. Note how the old folk approve of 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 London is one of Blake’s most powerful poems. It is a devastating critique of a city where almost every inhabitant is suppressed and exploited by those in authority and power. As Blake, in the person of the narrator, wanders the streets of London he observes and catalogues those who have been crushed by the greed and selfishness of 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 cries of men, women and children he hears the terrors of poverty and exploitation. London is a spiritual wasteland where the young chimney sweepers are forced into slavery, soldiers spill their blood to protect the rich, wealthy 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. The carriage that should bear them into the joys of marriage becomes a hearse transporting them to disease and death. To recap: The narrator wanders 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' is one of Blake's most powerful political poems. That power is 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' prostitute against the society which abuses her. But what are the 'mind-forg'd manacles'? They may represent the deeply ingrained respect for tradition and institutions that stopped the people of London from following the example of revolutionary Paris and overthrowing their oppressors in Church and State. After all, 'London' was published in 1793, four years after the outbreak of the French 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 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 (symbolised in the regimented streets and the “charter'd Thames”), and 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 (four stressed feet per line). This was a popular form of the verse of the day and was often used in hymns, nursery rhymes and 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, calm, serene, rural beauty and bliss. This is the world of 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 2nd 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 The Tyger is one of Blake’s most popular poems, and one of his most 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. In Blake’s terms, how can the God of Innocence also be the God of Experience? The answer is hinted at in the phrase “fearful symmetry”. Think of symmetry as a mirror image that reveals and contains opposites. 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 of artistic rather than natural creation, a work of Art rather than a product of Nature. The tyger is personified as having been born from fire, forged rather than grown, and characterised in terms of its metallic 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 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. (The “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 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 is portrayed as a ‘dread beast’; in English, ‘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/afraid something may happen. Incidentally, this happens with the 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 imagination with which the artist must work. Remember that the tyger 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 closing in, but they may also echo the sounds within our own hearts and souls, our deepest desires, our irrepressible natures, the savage beast 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 to ambush their mighty earth-bound opponent, the 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, just what is the tyger? As human beings, we are 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 to the spiritual world from where we ourselves originally come and to where we will eventually return. Born of star dust, we return to star dust.
THE BLOSSOM 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 that we must us ALL of our senses if we are to perceive the 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, 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’. Far from presenting an image of freshness and beauty, it reminds 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 together’ of the rose and the worm here, 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, for Blake human love is an 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 Chimney Sweeper, Blake called attention to one of the blind-spots of “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 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. 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 of ‘duty’ – misled, that is, by his own ‘innocence’. 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? 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 10
vision of the pastoral after-life may be a glorious and 'innocent' celebration 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 by society? One thing is certainly true: the child/narrator 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.” The poem is ABOUT innocence, 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 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 force of the scene is heightened by being placed in winter, amid ‘snow’, 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. 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 him to conceal his unhappiness (a reference to being “clothed”), psychologically as well as physically).
A CRADLE SONG The narrator watches his baby sleeping, and is reminded of God who became a human child in the person of Jesus and wept for mankind. The poem may 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 between hypnotism and somnambulism (sleep-walking) 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 change as inevitable waking follows sleep? Why, to put it another way, 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 Blake the clod of clay symbolizes unselfish love because it is capable 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 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 as mouthpieces for opposing conceptions 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 Blake intends. Blake always recognised the interplay of Innocence and Experience; he knew that the world was a difficult, challenging place, 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 that have a 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 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 in abstract terms the cardinal Christian tenets of God 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 creations, and as manifestations of Love, Mercy, Pity and Peace. The “human 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 their own ends, and how they use them to justify economic inequality 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 Divine Image Blake sets The Human Abstract, a summary of psychological development in the world of Experience. The virtues of delight – 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’. At the same time, though, the final stanza reminds 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 conversation elements such as ‘Come come’ and ‘Well well’ make the 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 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 ‘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 in unreasonable authority which puts duty before delight, scorns play, and believes that we should all trudge along on a treadmill they call life. Whereas the earlier song showed a benevolent, caring nurse, responsive 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 innocent enthusiasm, her reaction is to imprison them in her own mind-forg’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’. 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 play? Clearly the days of her own childhood do not signify the memory of a happy time which she ,might 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, or to prepare them for the ‘long littleness of life’? And where are the parents in this poem? Have they, too, ‘gone up to the church to pray’? INFANT JOY 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, the narrator responds in kind by saying ‘Sweet joy 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.
INFANT SORROW Infant Sorrow is the counterpart to Infant Joy. Here the child leaps into the “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 a hypocrite. The decoration to the latter is dark. A woman 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 hands and the swaddling bands represent the rules, regulations and restrictions which have already begun to bind the child and his 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 foreshortening of the poem prevents any such possibility being considered. 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, in the Soho area of London, where his father, James Blake, had a successful hosiery 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 edge of town. One on of his rambles, William reached Peckham Rye near Dulwich, where he saw a tree filled with angels. He hastened to tell his family of the vision, whereupon his father, deciding the time had come for his son to distinguish between 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 indeed. It is not possible to overestimate what the power 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 he copied plaster-casts of ancient sculptures. 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 master, James Basire of Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn, was engraver to the London Society of Antiquaries. Before 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 Basire, William learned the motto that influenced his judgement of art and artists for the remainder of his life: “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. 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 years, off an on, he worked in the Abbey alone, drafting sketches for his master and immersing himself in Gothic forms. It would have been surprising is Blake’s imagination had not 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 as Durer, Raphael, and Michelangelo. In literature too, he rejected eighteenth-century polish, preferring the Elizabethans (Shakespeare, Jonson and Spenser) and ancient ballads, both authentic (such as Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry), and forged (such as Macpherson's Ossian and Chatterton's Poems of Rowley). When he became 21, his apprenticeship ended. His skill as a draftsman and engraver was acknowledged, and almost immediately he received commissions from publishers. At the same time he studied painting at the Royal Academy, and in 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. There was, however, friction between Blake and his teachers. Reynolds recommended that he work with 'less extravagance and
more simplicity', while George Michael Moser, another teacher there, discouraged Blake's 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 Barry and his grand historical paintings. He made friends with other young artists and was able to exhibit his own historical watercolours. Blake took lodgings in Battersea, south of the River Thames, and within a few months married the landlord’s daughter Catherine Boucher at St Mary's, Battersea, on August 18, 1782. The newlyweds then moved out of Blake's father's house to Green 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, in time, he began to help him with the printing of his engravings and the tinting and binding of his books. She proved to be as good wife. She adored her husband, whom she always 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 breadwinner needed to earn some money. Above all she 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'. Blake was excited at the possibility of treating the page as an artistic whole, in which the poems and pictures together conveyed as deeper meaning than either could do alone. He was 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 a clear and even impression when printed in reverse on paper. Blake discovered a method which proved impossible to duplicate until the middle of the 20th 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 the revolution as a struggle towards spiritual freedom. Politically and religiously, he was a radical, meaning he believed that people should have freedom and equal rights within a lawabiding society. Blake's work became more overtly 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), was deemed too dangerous to actually publish. Lambeth was still a village when Blake and his wife moved to No. 13 Hercules 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 Netherlands. In England, the Crown, supported by the Church, 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. To the plates of Songs of Innocence, he added a parallel series, whose verse and decorations emphasized the dark and tragic aspects of life on earth. Blake became more and more depressed. The war with France 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. 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, 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 life in Sussex with great optimism. Blake received many commissions from his new patron, producing plates for Hayley's ballad Little Tom the Sailor, and engravings for his 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 by 1802, the situation had soured. Blake grew tired of 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 John Schofield, out of his garden, allegedly uttering the treasonous words 'Damn the king. The soldiers are all slaves.' Scheduled to be put on trial for sedition, Blake moved 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 began work on the illuminated books, 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 the publisher Robert Cromek approached him to both illustrate and engrave the poet Robert Blair's Grave, Blake's luck seemed to have taken a turn for the better. The disappointment was only the more intense, therefore, when Cromek ultimately chose the artist Schiavonetti to engrave Blake's illustrations instead of Blake himself. The Grave proved a success, but Blake received little financial reward. He now became 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, Cromek teamed up with the artist Thomas Stothard to produce a painting and engraving of Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims. Blake claimed they had stolen the idea from him 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 hosiery shop in May 1809. Almost no one came. The reviews were cruel, mocking Blake as 'an unfortunate lunatic whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement', and dismissing his 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 1810-1817 'Years of Deepening Neglect'. But Blake continued to work, believing his Jerusalem, an epic about war, peace and liberty focused on 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 watercolours of The Book of Job (originally produced for Thomas Butts) and commissioned the series of drawings from Dante's Divine Comedy in 1824. In 1821, Blake moved to a couple of rooms in Fountain Court, Strand, from which he could see the Thames. His young admirers called him 'The Interpreter', and confident in the judgement 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 of sixty-nine. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the dissenters' graveyard at Bunhill Fields. One of his last acts had been to draw a picture of Catherine, his loyal wife and helpmate, from his deathbed.
HIS IDEAS Unknown, unappreciated except by a few of his contemporaries for most of his fifty adult years, William Blake worked with unflagging zeal at projects of his own. The period into which he was born in 1757 has been called the Age of Reason. The prevailing rationalist philosophy taught that, from the evidence of his five senses, man could deduce those natural laws that govern the universe and human life, laws both correct and unalterable. For the rationalists, Science, not Nature, was the highest expression of God. The orderly progress of the stars provided all the testimony 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 nature by what we would now call photographic representation. 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. Behind the serene façade, however, there were rumblings of explosions to come. The working classes strained against the virtual slavery in which they were held; vigorous democratic spirits chafed under the restrictions of political morality; the conventional morality of the Church, designed to keep everyone in his place, was increasingly resented. Young artists and poets deplored 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 religious sects, new ideas for social reform, and more violently in the American and French Revolutions. Young Blake embraced these new ideas and made them his own. In his earliest work, we can see emerging the concept which obsessed 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 life, Blake played out many variations of this theme. 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 as an instrument for protecting the status quo, but for 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 “fourfold”: spiritual, intellectual, and emotional, as well as physical. In other words, it was the human expression of the love of Christ. From the basic concept that “Everything that lives is 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 balance was upset when Reason became dominant. In the resulting cataclysm, Reason fell from Eternity and created the material universe, the world of Experience in which we now live, the world of birth and death and repression. Individual man 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 creation. However, we will be interested in it 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 public. The method he developed for engraving the Songs so satisfied his artist’s need that he used it, varying the technical 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 circle of his friends and patrons. The irony is that Blake was “discovered” soon after his death, and his works, particularly the Songs of Innocence and 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 individual and to society. Life cannot be rich unless 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 invokes: sweetness, simplicity, 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 collection, Songs of Experience, Songs of Innocence represents Blake's most famous work and his third example of illuminated printing. Containing numerous poems that have become standard anthology pieces (“The Lamb,” “The Chimney Sweep,” “Holy Thursday,” etc.), the collection features nineteen poems and twenty-seven illustrative plates. As Blake intended the terms, “innocence” describes man's state before the Fall; “experience,” man's condition after the Fall. Blake scholar Geoffrey Keynes has stated, “The Innocence poems were the products of a mind in a state of innocence and of an imagination unspoiled by stains of worldliness. Public events and private 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 volume 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 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, filled with dead trees, wilting flowers, dead or dying figures, 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 the rationalist philosophy underlying them. This philosophy promoted 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. Some of the later poems are parodies of earlier ones. In many cases, 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 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 lines). Blake is unique among major poets in English before the 20th century in not using the most convention line, the pentameter (five-foot line) which 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 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 32
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 childhood view, or as the recognition of our Fall from the State 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 consistent use of them: “tyger” for “tiger”, “desart” for “desert”, “received” 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 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 illuminated texts and is now regarded as a seminal work of English Romantic 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 pictures for books were printed. He later went to the Royal Academy, and at 22, he was employed as an engraver 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 Natural Religion and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; long mysterious poems mixing the poet's own mythology with details from the Bible and classical mythology, and deceptively simple short lyric poems. The well-known hymn beginning: “And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England's mountains green?” is the preface 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 Innocence (1789) to which was added, in 1794, the Songs of Experience (unlike the earlier work, never published on its own). The complete 1794 collection was called Songs of Innocence and Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. Blake had very firm ideas about how his poems should 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 authoritative Dictionary of the 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 and pictures. Comments that follow refer to individual 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 ideas make sense to the modern reader. When this poem was written it was most unusual for writers to show interest in 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 night” (which suggests an unknown and hostile place) and 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 rhetorical (frequently used in public speaking, rhetoric 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 to create this animal. The idea that the tiger is 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 beating, and wonders how the animal'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 made 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's power in creation: the animal is terrifying in its beauty, strength, complexity and vitality. The Lamb In The Tyger Blake points to the contrast between these 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 (celebrating the Jews' escape from Egypt) when lambs 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 two poems, does Blake explore different 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 ideas in the poems are simple, too? Give reasons for 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 poem and the two which follow it, a central metaphor 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 appropriate that poems touching on Biblical themes should be parables, not unlike those of Jesus, in which a spiritual or abstract meaning is expressed in a vivid, picturesque story. The opening stanza is among the most deceptively simple and memorable of all Blake's lyrics: the form of each couplet is grammatically the same, but substituting four words wholly alters the meaning, from the ending of anger with the “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 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 simple natural metaphor, and the deep psychological truth 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 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 (this detail appears in mediaeval carols and in Milton'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 has “veiled the pole”. This “pole” could mean 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 exceptionally black. The metaphor suggests the darkness, 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 is “glad”. This is not the innocent gladness of a clear conscience, but the almost diabolical self-satisfaction of the poisoner. The triumphal gloating is miles away from the simple 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, 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 of this inequality. The ideas in this first stanza are clearly relevant to our own times, but would have been thought very shocking in Blake's time, when British society was organised 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 Human Abstract”, good things like “holy fears”, “tears” and “Humility”, are mixed up with wickedness - “mutual fear”, “the selfish loves” and “cruelty” - in “the dismal shade/Of Mystery”. 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” suggests a person, not an abstraction) while the idea of sickness or corruption is suggested by the “Catterpiller and Fly” which “Feed on the (tree of) Mystery”. As in A Poison Tree there is attractive fruit, though we do not know who is to eat it. 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 found “in the Human Brain” - that its existence is real, but metaphorical, rather than literal. The tree and its fruit suggest particularly the tree, in Genesis, of the knowledge of good and evil: as man has eaten the fruit of this tree, so he has gained 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 challenging statement of the problems faced by 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 This is a poem that makes sense to the modern reader, 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 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 with the central metaphor of this poem, the “mind-forg'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 (stanza 4). Here Blake imagines the mind as a forge where “manacles” are made. “Manacles” (for the hands - French les mains) and shackles for the legs, would be seen on convicts, perhaps 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 years before Blake wrote London, the Swiss philosopher JeanJacques Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract: “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”. Blake agrees with Rousseau that man's lack of freedom, his “manacles” are “mind-forg'd” - they come from the ideas and outlook imposed on us by external 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 London and even the river. It is absurd that the streets 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. Blake writes ironically of “the chartered Thames”. The “weakness” and the “woe” (a strong word in 1794; =misery) of every person is plain to see “in every face”, as in their cries, whether of adults or babies (stanza 2). Blake gives us three powerful examples of this “weakness” 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 organisation, which should help the poor, is blackened, metaphorically, with shame at its failure to give that 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 poem was written shortly after the start of the French 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 childprostitute 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 poem is (or should be) unique, but many poems can be explained in terms of certain elements or conventions which are commonly used: in discussing a poem, you might consider its subject (what it is obviously about), its theme (what it is about at a deeper level, important ideas), its argument (how the ideas are organised), its structure and form (use of stanzas, rhyme, metre and so on), its key images (word-pictures, symbols, metaphors 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. These different categories are now explained in 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 deeper truths they express. Thus The Tyger and The Lamb 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 conversation with the animal, to which many questions 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 rhyming couplets, except for London with its more elaborate ABAB rhyme-scheme.
Key images: In discussing Blake's poetry it is virtually 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 other important details (of extended metaphors) like 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 this is less obvious, but the “harlot” and the “new-born 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) rhyming pair, like “fears” and “tears” (find this twice; then 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 poems like folk-ballads or nursery-rhymes, almost. What he is saying seems so obvious that we can attend to (a far harder question) what it means. But often the simple style hides a very clever expression. Equally, it is difficult to say what Blake has said without using many more words, as with his comment on 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 Tree) or a single word or short phrase (as with “In every...” in London).
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