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In the eighteenth century when Blake lived we see injustice and misery to rule the world. People and Blake himself were affected by the French Revolution. They saw around them the anarchy, parliament was not changed, laws that were made for thieves and 'poachers' were too cruel. Terror was everywhere. Citizens of that time, that were part of the lowest part of the society, were very excited by this kind of revolutions because they wanted to be part of something and rebel against monarchy and every day repression. According to E.P Thomson at that time people were trying to believe that they could be liberated from bondage and cruelty not only in Heaven, as church told them, but also on earth. Humanity was angry by monarchy and tried to find ways to be heard. Blake was one of those people who were against monarchy. Although he was Christian he disagreed with church because of their hypocrisy. In his poems it is very clear that he is trying to open everyone's eyes and reflect the cruelty and corruption of his society, laws and church. Thomson also shows that Blake was never alone in this fight that chose to give. Other people were supporting him and they were an inspiration to him so he could continue criticize the privileged, reject everything that dominant said and rely on his beliefs and inner thoughts.
In cruel and cold London of that time, Blake spent all his life. He wanted to leave but he could not find the power because "the serpentine coils of 'the darkening Thames' held him till the end" (Crehan, 1984, p. 61). Blake was nothing like others from the Romantic Movement. He was not free like Shelley and never took the pleasure of a pension for his works like Wordsworth. Blake, like a self-taught intellectual, tried to move away from those categories that in the eighteenth century were the dominant issues of writing, like "order, nature, reason and moral law". He was against the pressure of his society and he was not afraid to show his anger through the pages of his poems. He was arguably the first poet in his city that tried to express his feelings through books. His rebellion was visual and some people tried to become an obstacle in his vision. Fortunately nobody convinced him and he fought until the end for his beliefs.
In a review that T.S Eliot made (1920) about Blake, he said that Blake was a free spirit. Nobody could tell him what to believe neither his parents nor his wife. As he was growing up he was responsible to himself about what ideologies he would follow. This is very important in his poems because there was nothing to distract him or to debase his interests. He followed his heart and the result is extraordinary. Honesty is the main characteristic in his books. This was the reason that he was not afraid to attack his society.
In 1789 Songs of Innocence was published. At that time French Revolution began and dramatically changes were occurred in France and European history in general. Monarchy collapsed in three years. Britain was also affected by this revolution and people started to demand their rights and were refused to be under monarchy. Furthermore Blake between those five years that passed he was writing Songs of Experience. In 1793 he finally published it and it was then when people started to wonder what he wanted to say in his poems in contrast with Songs of Innocence. As we see later those books were not opposite but the one filled the other. At first we see innocence through the eyes of children in countryside and an optimistic vision is reflected. Afterwards experience makes the world seem more realistic and cruel but this is the raw truth. Blake when he wrote Songs of Innocence was very childish and naÃ¯ve. This is revealed at first but then after he saw the cruelty of the world, he wanted to illuminate these darker feelings that he had. And so he did. In those five years that passed he grew up and naÃ¯ve poems became dark.
Blake named these books "the two contrary states of the human soul". This is not a random title but it is allegoric. Inside of it hides a deep meaning. It presents to the reader that these songs are not just a collection of books which talk about childhood and youth. As we are born we carry with us an innocent world were everything seems beautiful and cheerful. As we move on in this world we experience new things that open our minds and wake our senses. A world is spread in front of every human who is full of deceit and is ready to corrupt our souls. Innocence cannot be without experience. These are the two contrary states of the human soul. Moreover experience can be innocent too. When people grow old and are filled with experience at some point they see the innocence in life. They try to gain their lost innocence at the very end. It is a privilege if someone manages to do this at an earlier point of life.
As he grew old and wrote Songs of Innocence and Experience he was unfashionable for his time and his books were not famous and interesting to be read so he did not gain any money. That is why he had to depend on patronage from William Hayley, a Sussex poet. As Crehan explains Blake did not like him and he was a weight in his life. To that poet wrote a letter in 1803 and asked him why life was so unfair and that those boys who are famous now, know nothing about real art. Also he said that he was fifty and those boys were twenty and yet they were more appreciated by the society.
[â€¦] how is it that such a fop can be superior to the studious lover of Art can scarcely be imagin'd. Yet such is somewhat like my fate & such it is likely to remain. Yet I laugh &sing. . .
In this letter it is obvious that Blake was unhappy by his society. According to Crehan he had to face everyone with a mask on his face because he depended on them since he could not live only from the profits of the job that he had in the print shop. His feelings have something in common with "The chimney sweeper" in Songs of Experience:
And because I am happy & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury. . .
Here it is the same sorrow that he expresses in the letter. He tried to show his real feelings and thoughts throw this song. As we move in the core of his book it is always easy to see and understand how he really wanted to liberate himself from the cruelty and hypocrisy of his society.
In the introduction of Songs of Innocence the image that he wants the reader to capture it is successful. Except from his writings there are illustrations in his poems that carry the meaning off every song. In Songs of Innocence a rural world is described and a happy environment seems to be spread in the reader's heart. In that first plate a shepherd with his pipe walks through the forest and a child on a cloud tells him to sing a song. That child is the spirit of Innocence that is going to be continued in the other songs. After the piper started singing some songs the little child told him to write them down so that every child could enjoy them.
Piper sit thee down and write
In a book that all may read-
So he vanish'd from my sight,
And I pluck'd a hollow reed.
Finally the piper wrote down his songs so every child in the world could read them and flow in that cloud of innocence.
And I made a rural pen,
And I stain'd the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs,
Every child may joy to hear.
This is the introduction of these songs and we see a 'piper' who is ready to unfold the world of innocence in front of children's eyes. Now in this period of time in Blake's mind was full of happiness and his character was spontaneous as Ackroyd explains.
Afterwards in Songs of Experience a darker side of his society is presented. It is very clear that Songs of Innocence are followed by this darker intimation of Songs of Experience to make clear to the reader that life has these two sides. From the very beginning Blake replaces the piper who is a good shepherd to a bard. A bard was in medieval British culture a professional poet who was praising his patron's family and activities as English history defines. By starting the poem in this way, shows that what is going to follow in the other poems it is going to be repressed feelings and images like this bard; he is oppressed by his patron and Blake by his society. Already a darker colour starts to be spreading from these first words. This bard is trying to make Earth, which is the lost soul, to understand that she is vanished in a world where society probably put her. She has to wake up and look around her and probably regain the hope that she used to have in her soul.
O Earth O Earth return!
Arise from out the dewy grass;
Night is worn.
And the morn
Rises from the slumberous mass
Blake tries strongly to show how situation really was in his time, about church and political happenings. People were suffering and middle class was just watching them slowly dying without doing anything. As every writer who lived in hard times, industrialization of England (Dickens, Gaskell etc.), he tried to alarm everyone around him that society needed to be changed so that the quality of their life would be better. Firstly we see this condemnation of his society in one song of "Songs of Experience" which is "The Chimney Sweeper". In this song he flashes directly the lights to the problem of children labor. Here he describes a child talking about how his parents left him when he was really young ("Crying weep, weep, in the notes of woe) to go and work as a chimney sweeper. Afterwards he blames Church, God and King because his parents worship them more instead of taking care of him. They also think that their child is happy and lives in a 'Heaven' on earth, but they really do not know that their child is living in a 'Hell' that they put him into.
And because I am happy, & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priests & King
Who make up a heaven of our misery.
In this overwhelming song, Blake has a lot of fury about the dominant power of his society who was the Church. It is evident that Blake had a really serious issue about church and he was absolutely right that he felt like that because of the following reasons. As Edman explains in his book, once a year, on May Day, these children do dance and sing. This happens when 'streets of London are given to the sweeps and milkmaids to perform for alms in grotesque symmetry.' (Edman, 1977, p. 275). From this comment we extract the fact that these children are unhappy and they are suffering. These people and their church choose to ignore the real pain and how they live in horrible places cold and hungry, because of that one day that they seem to be happy.
Moreover Blake wanted to condemn the repressed sexuality that many people had. This is shown in the "Nurses Song" of "Songs of Experience". At first in "Songs of Innocence", "Nurse's Song" is a poem which talks about the love of a nurse towards the children and how she is happy watching them playing on the 'green'. She has a heart which is loving and caring. When the children tell her to stay longer outside because they want to play she leaves them and she feels good because she knows that they are just children and this is what makes them happy.
When the voices of children are heard on the green
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast
And everything else is still.
According to Gardner this has nothing to do with his own childhood. Afterwards this song is transformed into a dark shadow hanging over the children who are 'whispering' in the 'dale'. The nurse in the second poem in "Songs of Experience" is full of jealousy and hidden anger. As Sir Geoffrey Keynes explains, she is taking care of children who are not young anymore but they are adolescents and they are alert when it comes to sex and that is why they are whispering instead of playing. The nurse remembers with sorrow and regret her young age and how she wasted her time playing without having real sex experiences. Moreover her color changes and it becomes 'green' and 'pale' which is the color of jealousy and sickness of not having what she wants and especially because she knows that she will never have the children's experiences. This is a parody of the last 'Nurse's song'. It is an answer to it when it comes to the world of experience. Therefore with this song condemns his society because he shows the real side of people, who are trapped and they cannot express their real feelings.
When the voices of children are heard on the green
And whisperings are in the dale:
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.
The real damnation of his society and what he really thinks about the political happenings of his time is visual in one of the poems in "Songs of Experience" which is "London". In this poem he sets out what the actual facts really look like in the streets of corrupted London at that time. The illustrated picture for this poem shows a little boy leading an old man through London's streets. Every word in this poem hurts everyone who reds it:
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.
This is obviously a poem which marks every mind with the pain and desperation that Blake feels. Here the sense of hear is very strong. Crehan makes clear that 'what we see we can choose not to see, but what we hear is less easily shut out' (Crehan, 1984, p. 73). This statement is completely true and every person in this life chooses not to see the bad side of some situations. Here Blake is wondering through the cold streets of London and put down whatever he hears and sees. The capital letters that he uses to describe a person like 'Man' is to universalize this image. When he does this, every person can be in that situation which he describes. In the first stanza he says that streets and Thames are chartered which he means, according to Edman, that charters of that time were cheating people and they were destroying London's thriving. Based on this, Blake sees that everything is chartered because everything is corrupted by the value of money. Next the mark in every face he sees, declares how every person has the mark of trading money for goods. Everything is for sale and whatever he sees is corrupted. At the end Blake wants to wake people up because in the future, which is now, from every little thing to every human being, there will be a prize. Unfortunately nothing changed in our present. Everything is corrupted and ready to be bought.
In the third and fourth stanza of "London" something else is presented. Here the real condemnation of Church is clear. As the reader continuous to read the poem sees how Church really was at that time. A "black'ning" building and hypocrisy at its peak, as shown here:
How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every black'ning church appalls;
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
But most thro-midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new born Infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
In the third stanza, the chimney sweeper again is unhappy and every chimney that he cleans, instead of being clean it is still black. This shows that people who live under this chimney are covered by something more powerful which keeps them black because of their hypocrisy. This stanza 'makes the target-here, the guilty clergy's hypocritical concern-concretely visible (Crehan, 1984, p. 74). Blake sets the church exactly where it should be; in the peak of hypocrisy's pile. Another thing that is described here is about the soldier who sighs because he has to go to a war to fight the Republican France instead of battling the real enemy which is their king, archbishop and parliament who, from their safe palaces, advocate those innocent and harmless men to go and fight the wrong enemy. Finally the 'Harlot's curse' is syphilis, which was the main plague of that time, because of prostitution. Syphilis is a decease which blinds new born babies on the way out from their mother's womb. Also this is symbolic for 'Marriage hearse' because this curse is what makes marriage dead. Again here the church is condemned because marriage is no longer blessed or monogamous. It is full of lies and fables. Therefore Blake tries to foresee the future and warn people that everything will be flattened.
From all these poems although dark images are everywhere, there is something unexpected in 'Songs of Experience'. A hidden hope lights in some poems and one of them is 'The Voice of the Ancient Bard'. In this last poem of 'Songs of Experience' a flame is still burning after the way until here. Woes, foolish behaviors and clouds that have been following us by here, now the 'Ancient Bard' is calling every bad thing to move away.
Youth of delight come hither,
And see the opening morn,
Image of truth new born,
Doubt is fled & clouds of reason,
Dark disputes & artful teasing.
Folly is an endless maze.
Tangled roots perplex her ways,
How many have fallen there!
They stable all night over bones of the dead:
And feel they know not what by care:
And wish to lead others when they should be lead.
Blake wants to give hope to the generation which follows by bringing back the bard from the introduction to assemble youth around him and explain the following thing. In life there is darkness, misery, woes and disputes but one day all these are going to vanish from morning's sun. This sun will be the sun of justice. Though 'folly is an endless maze' at the end people are going to get out of there and see things in a more optimistic and clever way. Also the bard tries to advice youth that problems will always be in our way and just like we learned from our ancestors, they have to guide the new generation whenever they need to. Therefore this last hope is the new generation, which Blake expects to handle situations better and be brighter from people of his time.
Through this walk within Blake's songs, the reader becomes wiser. In the beginning in 'Songs of Innocence our mind fills with colorful images and happy sounds of rural life. Children are running and playing in every hill and happiness is in every field. Afterwards in 'Songs of Experience' a dark shadow is hanging over our head. Injustice, pain, misery and sadness is marked in every face just like it was on Blake's face. He wanted to wake people up because he does not refer only in his society but he wants to speak to the reader who is a part of the future. The fright in his soul was too black and this is why he felt that he should warn us. After all, the emphatic condemnation of his society was clear, but also he condemns every society which is structured like his. So the message that we get from him is to try to prevent their mistake and create a world better for everyone. Unfortunately every mistake of every society is repeated and there is nothing to do about it; this is how history works. At least Blake tried and his poems will be diachronic for every society to read.
"No other poet now speaks so directly to our generation about spiritual power and personal liberty, the corruption of war and the vision of peace." (Gardner, 1968, p.5)