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William Blake Poetry: British Analysis


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

William Blake’s focus is primarily on inner states; the drama of the later books has been called a
psychomachia, a drama of the divided psyche. In Blake’s world, humankind was once integrated
but suffered a Fall when reason sought to dominate the other faculties. The disequilibrium of the
psyche, its reduced perception, is the creator of the natural world as it is now known.

Contraries

The notion of “contraries” as defined and developed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
provides a dialectical basis for the regeneration of this psyche. Contraries are to be understood as
psychic or mental opposites that exist in a regenerated state, a redeemed paradisiacal state of
unlimited energy and unbounded perception. Blake has in his total work depicted the progress to
regeneration based on a conflict between contraries. Once contraries are accepted, energy is
created, progress is inevitable, and reintegration occurs.

Blake’s paradisiacal man differs from fallen man only in that he is aware of his divinity.
Paradisiacal man perceives the majesty of the imagination, the passions, the reason, and the
senses. The imagination in the redeemed state is called Urthona, and after the Fall, Los. Urthona
represents that fourfold, unbounded vision that is the normal attribute of the redeemed man. Such
vision is not bound by the particulars it produces through contraction, nor is it bound by the
unity it perceives when it expands. Blake, in the imagination’s true and saving role as poet,
envisions the external world with a fourfold vision. Luvah, the passions or love, is represented
after the Fall by Jesus, who puts on the robes of love to preserve some hint of divine love in the
fallen world. Urizen, the zoa of reason, is the necessary boundary of energy, the wisdom that
supplied form to the energies released by the other contraries. In the fallen world, he is the
primary usurper of the dominion of other faculties. Tharmas, the zoa of the senses, has, in his
paradisiacal form, unrestrained capacity to expand or contract his senses. In the fallen state, these
senses remain but in an enervated condition. Sexuality, the sense of touch shared by two, is a
means by which fallen man can regain his paradisiacal stature, but it is unfortunately a
suppressed sense. The Blakean Fall that all the personified contraries suffer is a Fall from the
divine state to the blind state, to the state in which none of their powers are free to express
themselves beyond the severe limitations of excessive reason. Each of the contraries has his
allotted place in the Fall; each sins either through commission or omission.

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Contraries remain a concern of Blake from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to the later
prophecies: The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem. The metaphysic of contraries, the theoretical
doctrine, is never denied. The opposition of energy to reason, however, dramatized in the Orc
cycle, is no longer Blake’s “main act” in the later books. From Night IX in The Four Zoas
onward, Los, who embodies something akin to the Romantic concept of the sympathetic
imagination, becomes the agent of regeneration. It is he who can project himself into the
existence of his polar opposite and can accept the existence of that contrary in the act of self-
annihilation and consequently forgive. Thus, the theory of contraries has not altered; any
contrary can assume a selfhood in conflict with dialectic progression itself. Los preserves the
dialectic while Orc maintains a hierarchy.

Innocence and experience

Blake’s concern with the earthly states of Innocence and Experience, with a fallen body and its
contraries, has been associated with religious apocalypse. Blake’s apocalypse involves a
progression from Innocence to Experience and an acceptance of the contraries in those states. An
acceptance of contraries would lead to the destruction of false perception and disequilibrium and
eventually to a complete resurrection of the fallen body. Humanity would again possess divine
proportions through a progressive development of its own nature rather than through obedience
to the supposed laws of an external deity. Through the faculty of imagination, Blake intuits the
divinity of humankind, the falseness of society, and the falseness of laws based on societal
behavior. He perceives the spiritual essence of humans, displaying therefore a spiritual rather
than a rational brand of humanism. Blake’s assumption that the human is a fallen god makes his
psychology more than a psychology; and it makes his humanism an apocalyptic humanism. His
diagnosis of the divided psyche becomes a revelation, and his therapy, an apocalypse. Blake
himself dons the mantle of a prophet.

Able to see God and his angels at the age of four, Blake gave precedence in his life to vision over
the natural world. He would continue to see through and not with the eye, and what he saw he
would draw in bold outline as ineluctable truth. Ultimately, even the heterodoxy of
Swedenborgianism was an encroachment on the supremacy of his own contact with the spiritual
world. Early inspired by the revolutionary spirit of the times, he continued throughout his life to
advocate a psychic revolution within each person that would lead to regeneration.

Archetypal themes

Blake’s mission throughout his work is always apocalyptic, although he creates a political terrain
in the Lambeth books (The [First] Book of Urizen, The Book of Ahania, The Book of Los, and
The Song of Los) and a psychological one in his later prophecies (The Four Zoas, Milton, and
Jerusalem). His focus moves from a political-societal revolution of apocalyptic proportions to a
psychic, perceptual regeneration of each individual person. It is the regenerated person who can
perceive both a unity beyond all diversity and a diversity within that unity.

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Songs of Innocence and of Experience demonstrates Blake’s concern for individual human life,
in particular its course from innocence to experience. What are the destructive forces operating
early on humans, on their childhoods, which ultimately imprison them and lead to “mind-forged
manacles”? In Songs of Innocence, a glimpse of energies is uncircumscribed, of what humans
were and again could be if they rightly freed themselves from a limited perception and repressed
energies.

The later poems, The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem, are large-scale epics whose focus is a
particularly Romantic one—epistemological and ontological transformation. Los, hero of the
imagination, is not a hero who affirms the values of a culture, nor are his strengths and virtues
uniformly admired by that culture. Like traditional epics, Blake’s epics begin in medias res, but
because the natural world is usually seen unclearly, it is worthless to speak of its beginning,
middle, or end. The reader who enters the world of Blake’s epics enters a psychic world,
becomes a “mental traveller,” and in his purest states reaches heights traditionally reserved for
deity in the Judeo-Christian tradition and deities in the epics of Homer and Vergil.

Blake’s work is not unconnected with the natural world, but he attempts to bracket out all but the
irreducible elements of the archetypal, individual human life. Paradoxically, Blake’s work is
characterized by less structural context than that of any poet of whom one could readily think;
yet that work is such a dramatic reaction to the eighteenth century and such a dramatic revelation
of the new Romanticism that it is unrivaled as an intense portrait of both sensibilities.

Humans imagining

In reaction to John Locke’s view that the perceiver is separated from the world because of his (or
her) incapacity to do more than apprehend the secondary qualities of objects, Blake asserted the
supremacy of individual perception. A human perceiving is a human imagining, an act that
encompasses the totality of an individual’s energies and personality. What is perceived depends
on the imaginative act. The world can be construed only imaginatively. Humanity, Blake held,
can apprehend the infinity within only through imagination. The London of Blake’s poem of that
name is a pitiable place because human imagination, human poetic genius, is repressed. London
is at every moment available for imaginative transformation; so is every object in the natural
world. In this view of imagination, Blake foreshadows Samuel Taylor Coleridge and especially
Percy Bysshe Shelley and attacks the rationalism of the eighteenth century. The metaphysics of
Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and Locke were despicable because they elevated rationality and
denied imagination, thus standing in the way of regeneration.

Besides disagreeing with the philosophy and psychology of his own day, Blake criticized
traditional religious and aesthetic views. Humanity’s fallen perception created the world, not in
seven days, but in what became a moment in time. Jesus was a man of revitalized perceptions,
and he was fully conscious of his unlimited energies. Jesus was thus a supranatural man, one
who had achieved the kind of regeneration that Blake felt it was in every person’s power to

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achieve. In art, Blake applauded the firm outline of Michelangelo and Raphael and despised the
indeterminacy of Rubens and Titian. The artist who apprehended with strong imagination drew
boldly because the truth was clearly perceived. Socially and politically, Blake, unlike Coleridge
and William Wordsworth, remained unreconciled to the status quo. Blake’s revolutionary zeal,
most pronounced in the Lambeth books, remained undiminished, urging him to portray error so
that it could be cast out. Only Shelley equals Blake’s faith in poetic genius to transform the very
nature of humanity and thus the very nature of the world humans perceive.

Songs of Innocence and of Experience

Songs of Innocence and of Experience shows “the two contrary states of the human soul.” The
contraries cited in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell are “Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and
Energy, Love and Hate. . . .” However, because these songs are not sung outside either Innocence
or Experience but from within those states, the contraries are not fully presented in their ideal
forms. The songs are from corrupted states and portray disproportionate contraries.
Theoretically, each contrary state acts as a corrective to the other, and contraries in the Songs of
Innocence and of Experience are suggested either in the text of the poem or in the accompanying
design.

The introduction song to Songs of Innocence and of Experience is a good example not only of
Blake’s view of the role of Innocence and Experience in regeneration but also of the complexity
of these seemingly simple songs. This song manages in its twenty lines to present a transition
from absolute sensuous Innocence to a recognition of Experience and finally a transition to a
higher state. The first stanza presents an almost complete picture of absolute carefree innocence.
The adjective “wild” may imply a condemnation of an aspect of absolute Innocence. Because
Blake believed that Experience brings an indispensable consciousness of one’s actions so that
choice becomes possible, the essential flaw in the state of Innocence is that it does not provide
the child with alternatives.

The second stanza of this lyric presents the image of the lamb, a symbol of Christ. The lamb,
while creating the image of the Innocence of Christ, also exhibits the equally true image of
Christ crucified. It is this symbol of Experience that brings tears to the child, and on a
psychological level, the child is emerging from a “wild” unconscious realm to a realm of
consciousness, of Experience.

The third stanza presents two interesting additions: The pipe is replaced by human song and the
child weeps with joy. The pipe had first produced laughter and then tears, but it is the human
voice that elicits the oxymoronic reaction of joyful weeping. It is only in the human form that the
attributes of the two contrary states of Innocence and Experience can exist harmoniously.
“Piping down the valley wild” had brought unconstrained laughter, while the figure of the
Christ-lamb had brought a more tearful vision of Experience; yet in stanza 3, such contrary
reactions exist, unresolved but coexistent, as do the contrary states that foster them.

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The fourth stanza alludes to the loss of childhood through the disappearance of the child of the
poem and implies that the elemental properties of Innocence remain after the departure of the
physical state of childhood. By plucking the hollow reed, Blake, the piper and singer, reveals a
move toward creation that is fully realized in the last stanza. From the vision of Experience of
stanza 2, and the acceptance of the necessary contrary states of Innocence and Experience
through their inherent qualities, laughter and tears, presented in stanza 3, Blake has reached the
higher plateau of conscious selflessness described in stanzas four and five. Through the act of
creation, the conscious selfless act, which intends to give joy to every child, the conscious
selflessness of Blake’s paradisiacal reintegrated state is achieved.

The Book of Thel

In The Book of Thel, a young girl in Innocence named Thel is fearful of advancing to a state of
Experience. Lily, Cloud, Clay, and Worm, symbols of innocence and experience, try to allay her
fears. Experience may contain key contraries in extreme form; it may be the wrath of the father
and the restraint of morality and the curtailment of vision, but it is a state that provides Thel her
only opportunity of advancement, of completion and eventual salvation. Experience is a
necessary step to the “peace and raptures holy” described by the Cloud. Thel, however, surveys
the traditional misfortune of Experience—mortality. She finds no meaningful comfort in the
Lily’s belief that from Experience, from death, one flourishes “in eternal vales.” Thel laments the
consciousness that is hers when she takes a trial step into Experience. She finds morality, which
represses sexual energy, unbearable. Thus, in spite of the eventual “peace and raptures holy” that
Thel can proceed to from a state of Experience, her first look at that state proves too much for
her. She flees Experience and consciousness to the vales of Har, the land of superannuated
children, described in the poem Tiriel; it is a land of unfulfilled innocents who have refused to
graduate into the world of Experience. A Songs of Innocence poem, “The Lamb,” and a Songs of
Experience poem, “The Tyger,” depict the nature of perception in those states and the contraries
that abide in each state. The poems may be viewed as “contrary poems.”

The questions of the child in “The Lamb” are not the reason’s questions but imagination’s—
questions he can answer because he has perceived the identity of himself, the lamb, and God.
The equation is formed thus: The lamb is Christ the lamb; the child is Christ as a child; and the
lamb and child are therefore joined by their mutual identity with Christ. In Innocence, all life is
perceived as one and holy. Because there are two contrary states of the human soul and “The
Lamb” is a product of only one, Innocence, it is not possible to conclude that this poem depicts
Blake’s paradisiacal state. The vines in the design are twisting about the sapling on both sides of
the engraving, indicating in traditional symbolism the importance of going beyond childhood
into Experience. If the child-speaker can see all life as one, can imaginatively perceive the
whole, he cannot perceive the particularity, the diversity, which makes up that unity, which

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Experience’s reason so meticulously numbers and analyzes. Even as the adult speaker of “The
Tyger” can see only a fragmented world that his imagination is too weak to unify, so the child-
speaker cannot see the fragments that comprise the world.

The spontaneity and carefree abandon of the lamb in Innocence can in Experience no longer be
perceived in the form of a lamb. The perceiver in Experience fears the energy of Innocence and
therefore shapes it into a form that his reason has deemed frightening—that of a tiger. This form
that the tiger of the poem “The Tyger” possesses is symmetrical, its symmetry lying in its perfect
relationship with the energy it contains. It is a “fearful symmetry” only to the perceiver in
Experience, who is riddled with the prejudices of Experience, prejudices regarding what is good
and what is evil, what is rational and what is irrational, or wild. The moral hierarchy of
Experience—good is good and evil is evil—does not permit the perceiver in Experience to
perceive a Keatsian “fineness” in the tiger, a marvelous interrelationship of form and energy.

The reader goes back and forth in this poem from a vision of the energies of the unconscious
mind to a perception of the boundaries of those energies. It is the mixture of energy and
boundary that the speaker-perceiver finds disturbing. The tiger in the first stanza is seen as a
burning figure in the night, perhaps symbolizing the burning vibrant passions repressed in the
darkened areas of the mind. The tiger perceived by the speaker can live only in the dark because
both reason and moral hierarchy have relegated it to that realm. The tiger is, in its energies, in its
fire, too great for the conscious mind to accept; yet, like a recurrent nightmare, the tiger burns
brightly and cannot be altogether denied. The tiger cannot be quietly integrated into the
personality of the speaker-perceiver without doing severe damage to the structure of self
carefully...

(The entire section is 7325 words.)

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