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Despite their apparent simplicity, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience are complex poems that reveal profound political, philosophical, and religious perspectives.
William Blake was a democratic poet, a spiritual visionary and a political activist who was very outspoken about his beliefs and views on society. Blakes’ Songs of Innocence and Experience, published in 1789 is a lyric anthology written in two collections: firstly, Songs of Innocence and secondly, Songs of Experience. I agree that his anthology captures through simplistic language, the complex and profound reality in which Blake lived. Works such as ‘The Chimney Sweeper’, ‘The Lamb’, ‘The Little Black Boy’, ‘London’, and, ‘The Tyger’, exemplify Blake’s views and critiques of the time in which he lived.
‘The Chimney Sweeper’ in ‘Songs of Innocence’ explores child labour during the industrial revolution and captures the dark reality of the mistreatment of many children. Children were employed between the ages of five and ten with the majority of them dead by the age of fourteen. The narrator, a young chimney sweeper has been working since his ‘father sold me while yet my tongue | Could scarcely cry ‘Weep! weep! weep! weep!’. (L. 2/3) The inability to pronounce ‘sweep’ emphasises the young age of the boy sold and he is left nameless highlighting the dehumanisation of these young boys. All they are, are tools to be used and disposed of. As a political activist and despite not having children of his own, it is clear Blake could not condone any mistreatment of children. By using a child as the narrator, Blake creates a social protest to counteract the ignorance and his disgust at the government for allowing this to happen and in other works such as ‘London’, he highlights the corruption of the government, church and state.
‘London’, a work from the Songs of experience collection revolves around human suffering and corruption. The speaker wonders the streets and everywhere he turns, everything he hears is filled with despair. ‘A mark in every face I meet, | Marks of weakness, marks of woe.’ (L. 3 /4) The repetition of ‘marks’ emphasizes the growth of this corruption, there is more than one mark on each life and the alliteration slows the tone ever so slightly allowing the reader to grasp the anguish that each face bears. Unlike in the Chimney sweeper, Blake incorporates every single person into this corruption, ‘In every cry of every man, | In every infant’s cry of fear, | In every voice, in every ban, | The mind-forged manacles I hear’. (L.5-8) No one is exempt from suffering; every cry and every bit of fear is captured by the punctuation slowing the pace of the poem. Much like the young chimney sweeps who are trapped in labour, society in ‘London’ is imprisoned within itself, the ‘mind-forged manacles’, (L.8) make it so that every person is confined to this corrupt society.
In relation to both ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ and ‘London’, ‘The Tyger’ is a work where Blake combines a ferocious creature with the industrialism in London. By using words like, ‘hammer’, ‘furnace’, ‘chain’, and ‘anvil’, Blake highlights the mechanical and technological advancements with which society is achieving. However, by comparing these advancements with a ferocious creature reveals Blake’s concerns for the future as not all advancements are good and that they will be dangerous, maybe even deadly.
Despite being an imaginative genius and an artistic innovator, it is clear that Blake wants society to change especially for the young chimney sweeps but he also seems wary that change is sometimes the least favourable outcome as seen through his concerns for future advancements. The simplicity of his language use reveals and focuses on the underlying political matters of his time; the mistreatment of children; the corruption in society and finally, the fear of a dangerous future.
Religion was a major part of Blake’s life, he was a Christian who unlike most during his time was very outspoken and critical of the church. Majority of his poems are entwined with religion such as ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ whereby the young narrator recounts the dream of another chimney sweep, Tom Dacre ‘who cried when his head, | That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved’.(L.5/6) The comparison to a lamb, a symbol of innocence and of Jesus highlights the loss of innocence and I believe this moment serves as a way of removing any remnants of protection that these boys had but now, they are left completely vulnerable to their dark reality. The dream, ‘and by came an angel’, (L.13) creates a small sense of hope despite the inclusion of death and ‘That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack, |Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.’ (L.11/12) An image which forebodes pointless deaths however all is not yet lost as the inclusion of the angel signifies the freedom these boys yearn for. The angel frees them and escorts them to a better life and in doing so, Blake reassures the reader that these souls will be looked after in death more than they ever were in life as ‘they rise upon the clouds’ and seek comfort in the arms of God.
Blake’s religious inclusion of the angel and the lamb, a holistic symbol, shows his outward disgust at the mistreatment of children and conveys the dual contrast between the grim realities of the chimney sweeps’ lives and the euphoric presence of the angel contained in the dream of Tom Dacre.
Unlike ‘The Chimney Sweeper’, ‘The Lamb’ is a poem that celebrates creation and is also a tribute to God whereas there is nothing to celebrate for the chimney sweeps whose lives are not their own. The rhyming couplets such as; ‘feed’, ‘mead’, ‘delight’, ‘bright’ adds a lyrical quality which is similar to a nursery rhyme as we soon discover the narrator is ‘[I] a child, and thou a lamb’.(L.17) Upon reading this, it could be said that Jesus is both the lamb and the child here, as he is known as the ‘lamb of God’, and also the ‘son of God’. Blake, who is normally critical of religion seemingly praises God here as he highlights the confidence a child has in the goodness of the creator and his creations.
Finally, ‘The Little Black Boy’ is a poem which captures the discovery of God’s love by a young black boy and is similar to ‘The Lamb’ due to a celebration of God himself by this young child. However, the first stanza captures a conflict the boy has, ‘White as an angel is the English child, | But I am black, as if bereaved of light.’ (L.3/4) He wonders what differences do they share other than skin colour and as the boy ponders his own existence, the image mirrors the soot-covered chimney sweeps who also have been ‘blackened’ and left feeling unloved. He questions God’s decision but as his mother explains that, ‘we may learn to bear the beams of love;|And these black bodies and this sunburnt face| Are but a cloud, and like a shady grove.’ (L.14-16) He must have patience in God, for God’s divine and powerful love will shine upon him soon just as much as it has shone on the white boy. Blake conveys that God’s love belongs to anyone regardless of appearance and through the black boy, he celebrates racial differences.
As a critic of religion, Blake emphasizes that God’s love does belong to everyone and that in dark times, it is the only thing that gives us hope.
‘The Tyger’, a poem which contrasts the natural world with the industrialism of presumably, London. Reading through the poem, I find that the Tyger is a more complicated creature than it seems. The references to blacksmithing, ‘What the hammer? what the chain? | In what furnace was thy brain? |What the anvil?’ (L.13-16) alludes to the possibility that this tiger was ‘forged’ rather than created naturally. Furthermore, the tiger could also be a symbol for the mechanical and technological advances that were being made during the industrialism of London. Perhaps Blake wants the tiger to mirror these advancements because of how dangerous and potentially deadly they both could be for society.
However, ‘London’ revolves around the corruption of society and throughout the poem, it is clear that there is an overwhelming amount of suffering. Blake conveys this suffering through simple language such as, ‘In every cry of every man, | In every infant’s cry of fear, | In every voice,’ (L.5-8) as a reader you can feel the despair in echoed in each cry as the punctuation carries this tone of despair throughout. He highlights how corruption spreads in many different ways, like ‘the hapless soldier’s sigh| Runs in blood down palace-walls’, (L.11/12) unravelling the corruption of the government and state ‘then Every blackening church appals,’ (L.10) reveals the sanctity of a place of guidance has also been corrupted.
The pillars of society have fallen into the clutches of corruption. It is also evident that not only have church and state become corrupted but also the citizens of the city as, ‘the youthful harlot’s curse | Blasts the new-born infant’s tear, | And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.’ (L.14 -16) This moment captures the true nature behind corruption. The inclusion of a prostitute who has a sexually transmitted disease bearing a married man’s child captures the highest peak of corruption. Her child will grow up to either be a chimney sweep if it is a boy or another ‘harlot’ if it is a girl which undoubtedly reveals that corruption is a cyclical process because her child, who has presumably been corrupted already won’t amount to anything in this society.
At first glance, it is clear the use of simplistic language conceals the more in-depth complex meanings of each poem. The more you read each composition, the more you begin to see past the simple wording and search for the political, philosophical and religious connotations that are riddled throughout every poem by Blake.
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- Gordon, T. and Wang, B. (2011). Songs of Innocence and of Experience “The Tyger” Summary and Analysis. [online] Gradesaver.com. Available at: https://www.gradesaver.com/songs-of-innocence-and-of-experience/study-guide/summary-the-tyger [Accessed 8 Feb. 2019].
- Lively, B. (2012). Race and “The Little Black Boy”. [online] William Blake and Enlightenment Media. Available at: https://williamblakeandenlightenmentmedia.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/race-and-the-little-black-boy/ [Accessed 5 Feb. 2019].
- Shmoop.com. (2008). London Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory. [online] Available at: https://www.shmoop.com/london-blake/symbolism-imagery.html [Accessed 8 Feb. 2019].
- Shmoop.com. (2008). The Lamb Analysis. [online] Available at: https://www.shmoop.com/lamb-blake/analysis.html [Accessed 5 Feb. 2019].
- Blakearchive.org. (n.d.). The William Blake Archive. [online] Available at: http://www.blakearchive.org/ [Accessed 4 Feb. 2019].
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