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William Blake | Critique Of Organized Religion

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5463 words Published: 19th May 2017

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William Blake is known to be a ‘lunatic’ of his time, from 1757 to 1827, for producing imaginative engravings and mystical poems with radical opinions regarding society and fundamental beliefs. For this reason, his work was not appreciated by the general public at that time even though they eventually became extremely influential on the literary movement known as Romanticism. His condemnation of the authoritarianism nature of organized religion is blatantly shown in Songs of Experience through the depiction of relentless suffering because of the belief that organized religion and social injustice are essentially conflated. For instance in The Garden of Love from Experience, Blake creates a contrast between the innocence and carefree nature of children “[playing] on the green”, which is also seen in The Echoing Green in Songs of Innocence, and criticism of the Church represented by the metonym, “Chapel”. The reference to “green” represents the centre of the village community before the Industrial Revolution and more importantly, to the innocence of the prelapsarian. In addition, the fact that the Chapel is “built in the midst” illustrates the view that the Church predominantly causes corruption and hardship in society where contentment is a thing of the past as implied by the expression “used to”. Consequently, the binary opposition of innocence, the idyllic nature of childhood and experience, the corruption of mankind in the titles of the volumes is an ironic contrast to symbolize the constraints of religious doctrines and the agony inflicted on people as a result. Gaining worldly experiences and knowledge will ultimately distort our innocence; so Blake criticizes the Church and its part in causing as well as upholding social injustice during the Industrial Revolution. This is worthy of exploring because Blake is a poet of the first generation of romanticism so he wrote passionate poems as a protest during the Industrial Revolution when values are shifted and oppression of the poor was a norm. Therefore we are able to get an insight into what people felt during that time of adversity through Blake’s powerful lyrical delivery using poetic language, rather than having to interpret meaningless facts and figures.

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The isolated Songs of Innocence was first published in 1789, and the combined volume of Songs of Innocence and of Experience was later published in 1794, which turns out to be one of the most famous illuminated books Blake has ever composed. He brought about a groundbreaking technique at the time, relief etching, which enabled him to combine visuals and words to present a holistic representation of his vision to the reader. The combination of the two volumes includes an extra subtitle – ‘Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul’, to illustrate the two extremes of mankind; innocence which can be associated with the prelapsarian before The Fall of Man and experience, usually associated with the postlapsarian. This can be seen in the engravings on the title page of this volume of flames representing God’s wrath blasting over Adam and Eve who are covering their loins, illustrating their state of experience. As well as that, the additional heading emphasizes the importance of Blake’s intention for the two originally separated books to be read side by side, so a complete argument is offered because “Without contraries is no progression”, he insisted. For instance, complementary poems of the same name like Introduction can be found in both Songs, acting as commentaries on each other with diverse viewpoints. The poem from the Innocence collection is simple with an optimistic tone, showing life through the eyes of children. In the first two lines, we sense that the narrator is youthful and untainted by the world because the repetition of “Piping” suggests a purely spontaneous and natural form of music. In addition, the fact that the songs are without lyrics symbolizes that in this period of innocence children are not confined to the complex meanings spoken words denote. As a direct contrast, in Introduction of Experience, “The Holy Word” has been heard by people; signifying complexity is brought into life after gaining experiences and they are subjected to exploitation and suffering.

Other than that, we can observe from the title pages of both Songs the graduation of life. This is because the young children portrayed in Innocence receive education from a nurse, which represents joy and innocence as shown in Nurse’s Song, the nurse says

“My heart is at rest within my breast

And everything is still”

when she watches children play on the field. A similar form of innocence is evident in her because she takes pleasure in watching her children in their carefree spirit. However on the title page of Experience, the young children from Innocence are grown up and shown to be weeping by the deathbed of their parents. This symbolizes that children eventually have to grow to endure the harsh experiences life brings, for example death as signified by “Runs in blood down Palace walls” in London. In addition, they are prone to experience suffering that life as well as society brings to them, the latter being ironical because of the exploitation of children during that period in jobs like chimney sweeping. This is suggested in the Introduction of Innocence where the progression of the last two stanzas foreshadows a transformation from innocence to experience. An element of purity is brought forward when the narrator uses water as ink to write, since it is typically used to represent purity. As the narrator “stain’d the water clear” it is also implied that sins will eventually corrupt the purity of the child, and the inevitability that innocence will turn into experience is first proposed. Therefore, Blake seems to be suggesting that we find our own balance through these subtle comparisons between the two ‘states’ and to enhance his disapproval of the treatments of people at that time by painting a model scenario of what would be more desirable.

In the pairing of The Lamb from Innocence and The Tyger from Experience, a realistic perspective on religion is put forward when the naïf ignorant view of children is set against a cynical experienced view. The Lamb is structured like a catechism, which is used to be used to teach children religious teachings, with questions and answers in the first and second stanza, respectively. The central question from the narrator is

“Little Lamb, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee?”

This happens to be one of the fundamental and controversial problems of humanity, concerning the creation of life and the universe. The repetition of “Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee” in the first two lines of the second stanza shows the narrator’s confidence in his answer. Blake illustrates the link between the lamb and Jesus Christ, whom is symbolically the ‘Lamb of God’, in the lines:

“For he calls himself a Lamb.

He is meek, & he is mild”.

The alliterative adjectives “meek” and “mild” are a conventional belief of Christ’s traits and the emphasized connection between the “Lamb” and Christ is evident. Therefore, this depicts the simple and innocent faith that is typical in children because they do not question their beliefs or authorities, even though the idea of “a little child” being the creator of the “Little Lamb” should seem absurd to an innocent mind.

On the other hand, in The Tyger there are a series of rhetorical questions posed, rather than one central, focused one, and the tone seems slightly interrogative, adding more tension to the poem. The question which explicitly relates it to The Lamb is in the fifth stanza: “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” The poem presents a questioning of whether or not the same divine being or “immortal hand or eye” is the creator of both the lamb and the tyger, if so; why would He create such a terrifying creature anyway? The destructive nature of the tyger is expressed throughout the poem, for example in the second stanza. The imagery of the “fire” burning within its eyes exudes a sense of ferocity and danger, which is also suggested by its “fearful symmetry”. As well as that, the regular iambic meter with a stressed first syllable on each line gives the poem an aggressive and pounding rhythm. This brings the tyger to life, conveying its movements and the reader can feel the beating heart in the poem, adding a layer of intensity, whereas in The Lamb, there is a resemblance to songs and hymns with a calm rhythm to it. This is due to the soft vowels and repetitive couplets, giving the poem a sense of flowing continuity. Consequently, the tyger is essentially a symbol for the evil and darkness of human nature which eventually is responsible for instigating the social evils, as opposed to innocence and goodness represented by the lamb. According to that, the poem offers the reader a more ‘experienced’ issue so to speak, that God produces suffering and violence in the world too, challenging the typical and conventional beliefs of God that innocent Christians would possess. Another point worth noting is that the tyger portrayed in the poem is in some ways reminiscent of the devils of the Industrial Revolution. The reason behind this is that God is presented as a blacksmith with the craftsmanship of divinity, suggested by the lexes: “hammer”, “chain”, “furnace” and “anvil” in the fourth stanza which can be associated to the tools and noises that may be heard during that period. The simple union of the two concepts of an imperfect God – creating good and evil embodied in the lamb and the tiger, and the endless suffering the Industrial Revolution resulted in, gives the reader a glimpse into Blake’s ideology of the relationship between organized religion and social injustice.

The conflict between the discussions of creation in the two aforementioned poems leads to the imminent theme of social injustice, which Blake regarded to be made available by the Church which he also accuses to be responsible for repression. This is explored in the two different The Chimney Sweeper poems as Kathleen Raine delicately puts it: “The Chimney Sweeper of Innocence can escape in dreams into a heavenly country; but Experience reminds us that the crimes of society against the children of the poor are none the less for that.” [1] First of all, in the poem in Innocence, even though the sweeper is abandoned as implied by the lines “[his] mother died… And [his] father sold [him]”, he seems to be content with his situation. In contrast, the narrator’s conscious awareness and blame of his parent’s betrayal and their part in his abject circumstances in Experience is apparent in the lines:

“Where are thy father & mother? Say?

They are both gone up to the church to pray”.

To hide their guilt, the parents go to church and praise God, perhaps so that their sins of abandoning their child to a dangerous job can be forgiven. Optimism is first shown in Innocence in the dialogue the narrator has with Tom,

“Hush, Tom! Never mind it, for when you head’s bare

You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

A sense of hope in shown in this speech, which is typical of children but it can also mean that nothing can remove the innocence of children, through the juxtaposition of “white hair” symbolizing purity and blackness of the soot which can not only represent evilness of man that led to this suffering but sins too; also beginning with the letter, ‘s’. However, Blake proves this to be untrue in other poems as the innocent will eventually get exposed to the corruption and distortion that comes with age and experience.

On the other hand, The Chimney Sweeper in Experience acts as a complaint of the exploitation of children to be chimney sweepers with bitterness, presenting the hard reality. Rather than believing that “So if all do their duty they need not fear harm” like the chimney sweep in Innocence believed, which is full of naivety because he is hopeful in the cruelty of his situation and faithful that being obedient will eventually get him to the place he wants to be – Heaven; he believed that

“Because I was happy upon the heath,

And smil’d among the winter’s snow,

They clothed me in the clothes of death,

And taught me to sing the notes of woe.”

Blake uses a half rhyme in this stanza to stress the atrocity of the situation and the extent of the narrator’s suffering. Therefore, the narrator acknowledges that he is made a victim because his parents envy his happiness so he is “clothed in the clothes of death” which may resemble the black soot that covers a chimney sweeper’s body and clothes, or it can illustrate his life of endless suffering that resembles death anyway. As well as that, the belief of the narrator in Innocence is twisted and ironic in a way since the nature of the job is dangerous, as implied in the poem in Innocence through “coffins of black” conveying death, so in reality they are constantly being “harmed”. Therefore this may suggest that organized religion sometimes makes it possible for children to be made victim of their own innocence. Similarly in Experience, the chimney sweep has been dehumanized to “A little black thing” and the stark contrast of colors between the snow and him is indicative that he is corrupted to simply a spot of impurity upon the snow.

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Blake’s contempt and skepticism for parents who fail to protect their children, and authorities in England at that time are evident in the final stanza. After the exploitation of children, the parents “think they have done… no injury” which shows their ignorance because in fact the children are not only physically harmed but also psychologically. The plate of this poem paints a realistic picture of a chimney sweep looking at the sky full of gloom, with a bag on his back presumably filled with soot. The effect of this design is that it gives the poem a quality of poignancy because the boy is alone, after knowing that his guardians have disregarded his safety. Other than that, the last two lines of the poem are a powerful accusation due to the fact that Blake condemns “God & his Priest & King”. In other words, the Church and the government are criticized for endorsing and upholding the chimney sweep trade, but God is also reproached for his callousness and for condoning the suffering of His children, His ‘lambs’. Blake seems to be suggesting that the Church and the government are conspiring to oppress the weaker communities in society, for instance the poor, perpetuating their misery. The conclusion of the poem, “… make up a Heaven of our misery” evokes much thought since it is the narrator’s realization that the authorities who provoke the suffering makes certain promises – of Heaven, of eternal joy, “if he’d be a good boy” as told by the Angel in Innocence. However, these may merely be a form of illusion designed to make the agony and cruelty of the world seem plausible and even honorable.

A reference to chimney sweepers is also made in the famous poem London in Experience, bringing to light the exploitation of children at that time and the social degradation that resulted. This is shown in the third stanza where the victim, “Chimney-sweepers”, along with the others such as the “Harlot” and “Soldier”, is shown as a proper noun to enhance the scrutiny of the suffering they are made to endure. The “cry” refers to the line “Could scarcely cry “‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!” in The Chimney Sweeper of Innocence, which not only echoes innocence because it acts as a plaintive cry but it also urges the reader to empathize with the boy. However it also indicates that the boy is unable to correctly pronounce ‘sweep’, which comes with age. Therefore it deepens the effect of the poem since a young innocent boy has to seek ways to escape from the atrocities in life that he needs to face; which in reality he should not have to. The second line reminds the reader of Blake’s criticism that the Church condones chimney sweeping, which covered the children with black soot. Plus, the word “black’ning” symbolizes the corruption and wearing down of the reputation of the Church and its morality which “appalls” Blake, as well as the citizens of London and the reader. The choice of vocabulary is very interesting here, as “appalls” acts as a pun insinuating death; a pall being a cloth to cover a coffin, further suggesting that the Church condones death which is also used in Holy Thursday of Innocence. On the contrary, The Ecchoing Green of Innocence, which can be considered to be the counterpart of London, depicts a day in the life of children enjoying the freedom of nature as indicated by the first line “The Sun does rise” representing dawn and in the last stanza, dusk: “The sun does descend”. Consequently, it is possible that this reflects the cycle of life as well and the graduation of childhood to maturity. Other than that, the freedom of nature is evident through the repetition of words that gives a sense of happiness throughout, for instance “happy”, “merry”, “chearful”, “laugh” and so on. It is apparent that the delightful tone conveys an idealistic love for nature and life as opposed to the revulsion of what has become of one’s existence in London.

The form of London is crucial in understanding the main theme; the alternate rhyming lines, and consistent number of lines and syllables with a simple rhythm throughout evoke a feeling of limitation. Consequently, it provides an initial idea that the poem will contain numerous images of restriction and an in-depth study of the fears of the people during that period of time. The Ecchoing Green however, has three verses of ten short lines with an alternating rhyme scheme. The effect of the short lines is that the rhyme is heard more frequently so the ambiance of the poem is more lighthearted instead of the dark, bitter tone of London. Other than that the rhyme enables the poem to flow, and producing the ‘echo’ as suggested by the title at the same time, which brings to mind a raw setting. The notion of confinement of London is further dealt with in the ambiguity of the word that appears in the first line – “charter’d”, which is also repeated in the next line, as it can convey freedom as well as constraint and control. However when the word is put against the phrase “Thames does flow”, an oxymoron is created by implying that a flowing river is being restrained; further developing the notion of a lack of freedom in the city. In addition, the progression from a visual imagery in the first stanza – “Marks of weakness, marks of woe”, to aural in the next – “In every Infant’s cry of fear” makes it virtually impossible for the reader or audience to shy away from the grave topic. Blake makes use of a pun in “mark” where it is first used as a verb in “mark in every face” and next as a noun to emphasize the commonality of misery. On another note, the numerous cases in which deliberate repetition is used in the poem not only give emphasis to the subject but it also reinforces the idea of human degradation that should not be overlooked.

“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.”

The insistent repetition of “every” in this case emphasizes that the suffering and agony presented is a social norm, begging for the reader’s concern and attention. Yet, the last line of the stanza brings to mind the psychological torment the Church endorses; the restriction of thoughts and desires as implied by the “mind-forg’d manacles” that bind the mind from thoughts and any outbursts of rebellion. Also, this can be related to The Garden of Love mentioned beforehand, since it alludes to the fact that organized religion and the Church has a major role in oppressing the poor. For instance, the imagery Blake uses to portray this is the Garden of Love which is now “filled with graves,/ And tomb-stones where flowers should be”. The graves and tomb-stones signify death after the loss of innocence, represented by the “sweet flowers” of the past, due to religious authorities. This conclusion can be drawn because of the imperative quote, “Thou shalt not” written on the door of the Chapel, a biblical allusion to the Ten Commandments, and an instrument to make repression and prohibition of expression appear acceptable whereas at the same time showing the extent of the restriction imposed by religious doctrines. Although this poem has an implicit link with London, a more obvious connection can be found between it and The Ecchoing Green, which is why many critics claim that the latter is the true counterpart assigned to it. The line that draws immediate connection to The Ecchoing Green is: “Where I used to play on the green” in the first stanza, where the comparison of the tranquility of “The birds of the bush,/ Sing lounder around” is made against the garden which is destroyed by the regimentation of organized religion.

A stark contrast is shown between The Ecchoing Green and London with regards to love within a family. For instance, in the former poem the children return to their mothers and through a simple simile “Like birds in their nest”, Blake is able to convey innocent love in family life whereas in ‘London’ even the most fundamental relationship – one between mother and child, is tainted. This is evident in the last stanza where a prostitute is portrayed as a representative of women who were victims in England during that time. “Plagues” implies that the prostitute will pass on venereal disease to her children and family, hence the “curse” on the infant and the paradoxical expression: “Marriage hearse”. This is because a hearse is associated to death and funerals; implying that she will wreck the marriage. Other than that, the disease she carries illustrates the corruption of physical self which Blake intended to be a criticism of society’s lack of support for this community. Additionally, the pun made on “curse” can be of the cussing due to her self-loathing for the distress she causes her child, or it can be the horrors that the child will eventually have to face in the world. As opposed to the affectionate mothers in The Ecchoing Green, she is responsible for passing on a disease. The “curse” can also be on society because everyone is potentially cursed; the total degradation of life and health gives a poignant yet powerful indictment on the social injustices the “black’ning Church” makes allowances for. Furthermore, a powerful condemnation is made in the final two lines of The Garden of Love,

“And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars my joys & desires.”

Throughout the poem the first and third lines of each stanza rhyme but the last line is inconsistent with this rhyme scheme, hence highlighting its importance. An anti-priest view is stated when the connection between “Priests” and “black gowns” are made because it suggests that organized religion is responsible for the death and the “graves” that are previously discussed. The internal rhyme in these two lines is significant because it shows the restriction imposed by the Church and it connects important words together, such as “briars” and “desires”. Consequently it reflects the suppression of thoughts and the dictatorship of the Church over people’s freedom.

Similarly, the two Holy Thursday poems form an accusation against society for hypocrisy and for the grim lives of children living on charity when read collectively. The two poems depict children from charity schools setting out to St. Paul’s Cathedral on Ascension Day, also known as Holy Thursday. However, each of the poems offers a different perspective of the occasion. For instance in the poem in Innocence there are repetitions of words such as “Innocent”, “white”, “flowers”, “radiance” and “lambs”, suggesting innocence and delight. At first look the poem seems to be of children singing praise like “a mighty wind” to the authorities that help the poor – the “wise guardians of the poor”, however the reader’s interpretation of it may shift after reading the more realistic view in the poem in Experience. The “mighty wind” of their voices has now become a “trembling cry” which is ironic since the children shown in Innocence are full of power but in reality they are powerless when being exploited. As well as that the “wise guardians” are now compared to being a “usurous hand”. This effectively demonstrates Blake’s criticism that the supposed guardians lack the attention and compassion for the wellbeing of children as they are figuratively compared to a hand. Therefore these two examples show Blake’s use of duality in his symbolisms and metaphors to enhance his complaint of society. However, the difference between the experiences of the world of the narrators from each of the poems may be due to the difference in their beliefs and their exposure to reality.

Blake’s usage of contrasting colours of the uniforms “in red & blue & green” with the “grey-headed beadles” in the first stanza of the poem in Innocence suggests that innocence is in the hands of abused authority. Furthermore, the “wands as white as snow” may evoke a sense of innocence but the wand can equally suggest rigidity and regimentation. Other than that, the repetition of the quantity of people participating in the occasion in the words: “multitude” and “thousands”, shows the large amount of poverty that existed, on a literal level. It also urges us to question why the charities are necessary in the first place, therefore challenging the quality of life people had at that time. On the other hand, a more explicit condemnation is made through the rhetorical questions and partial answers in Experience. Firstly, in the first stanza the “flowers” are now “Babes reduc’d to misery”, which shows the vulnerability of the innocence to be exploited and it makes clear of what they have become – victims. The rhetorical question presented therefore is whether or not it is “a holy thing” that some people are still so miserable in such a well-developed country. Also, this can emphasize the views brought forward in The Tyger, challenging the conventional God which brings pain and torture as suggested by the phrase “fill’d with thorns”, as well as evil to the world. The answer to the question seems to be in the second stanza, where the repetition of “poor… poverty!” creates an emphasis on the hostile conditions, where the relentless suffering of the children are also illustrated through the repetition of “And their” in the third stanza. Therefore the ironic contrast between a “rich and fruitful land” and “a land of poverty” is formed, where the latter may in actual fact suggest the spiritual poverty of the system which appears to be the root of the problem. This is also suggested in the puns of the last stanza where the words “sun” and “rain” bring to mind “son” and “reign”, respectively. These words can be related back to Jesus and it shows that as long as Jesus is present in the people there will be spiritual fulfillment. As a result, the reason for the exploitation of children is suggested to be due to people’s lack of spiritual ‘welfare’ so they compensate by being materialistic. The two lines in which these puns are used,

“For where-e’er the sun does shine,

And were-e’er the rain does fall…”

present a vision and hope for the future where children are no longer abused by the system. Plus, references to the nature are made as opposed to the “eternal winter” caused by men and industrialization, which shows the bleakness of the children.

The structures of the two poems contribute a lot to their purposes too; for example the iambic heptameter and relatively longer lines in Holy Thursday in Innocence informs the reader about the gravity of the matter being dealt with, whilst the short lines of the poem in Experience is more upfront about the bitter indignation it offers. The rhyming couplets in each verse of the poem in Innocence give a sense of the march of the children that is being depicted. As well as that, the plates paint a melancholic and authentic picture of the reality of the situation where in Innocence children are being lead by the beadles whereas victims of poverty are depicted in Experience. The latter plate gives a picture of dead children and their helpless mothers in horror at the sight of them. Consequently, if we look at the two plates together they imply that the beadles or establishment symbolically ‘led’ the children to their death and suffering, which may be Blake’s intention after all.

In conclusion, through the exploration of these various sets of poems, a deeper understanding into Blake’s critique of the social conditions and exploitation that are condoned by a supposed ‘guardian’ of society, the Church, is evident. This is apparent through the blatant portrayal of suffering and darkness in the poems in Experience, most notably in London where the depths of despair is shown through the “Marks of weakness, marks of woe”. He emphasizes that this act of inducing misery on others by the Church is despicable through his numerous allusions towards it, mentioning that “Every black’ning Church appalls”. As a result, it makes a bold and unashamed denigration of organized religion in the 18th century. However, due to the dualism and the binary opposites that Blake makes use of through the concept of contrary states, he is also able to form an ironic satire out of certain poems in Innocence to emphasis that children are easily exposed to the evils of the world so we as readers must look deeper and help the victims. This is apparent in the last line of Holy Thursday in Innocence: “Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door” where Blake attempts to tell the reader to be compassionate. The concept of dualism is with the intention that the extreme conditions can be laid out and the magnitude of the problem can be recognized, especially the social evils made possible and upheld by the Church, thus the reader can empathize with the victims. Therefore, it is possible that Blake merely aims to bring the harsh conditions to light whilst advising the reader to proceed to make a change to rid of the evils of the authoritarians.


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