Blake (1760-1827) may belong to the First generation of the English Romantic poets even if some critics consider him a pre-romantic. He is entirely romantic above all in his concept of the imagination, in his hatred of the conventions imposed by civilization and in his opposition to the restrictions on the individual freedom imposed by law, reason and religion. Like the other Romantic poets, he loved nature and was interested in medieval and Gothic. Blake lived during a period of great revolutionary changes: American, French and Industrial Revolutions. He was not indifferent to the social and political context of his own time and denounced the cruelty of the slave trade and of the inhumane exploitation of children. He was dissatisfied with society and considered it as the root of every evil and the main agent of oppression since it limited spontaneity and freedom. It was corrupt and insensitive and didn’t take care of the needs of its weak citizens. He saw religion, politics and industrialism as “dark Satanic Mills” and the new industrial England as a” land of poverty”.
He did not go to school. At the age of ten he was sent to a drawing school and at fourteen he was apprenticed to an engraver and received a good training. At 22 he entered the Royal Academy. He was not famous as a poet in his own time, but he was appreciated as an engraver and as a painter. To make money, he illustrated the works of other authors. His fame as an artist and an engraver rests on a set of copper plates which illustrated The Book of Job in the Old Testament and his illustrations of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Thomas Gray’s The Bards.
WORKS: Blake’s books did not receive much attention in his lifetime and his literary production was not commercially successful. This was due to the fact that they were very expensive to buy because of their particular technique of printing that he called “ illuminated printing” . It consisted in printing the poems not normally in books but on silver copper plates on which he engraved by his own hand both the words and the illustration pictures. He said that his dead brother Robert had revealed it to him in a dream.
Among his work we may mention Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience and the so-called “Prophetic Books”, a series of long symbolic poems in which he expressed his view that the poet was a prophet inspired by visionary messages. The inspiration for these poems came from John Milton, of whose spirit he believed to be the living reincarnation. Among them we can mention: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a prose work which contained Blake’s view of the contraries meaning that both Good and Evil were present in the world and were essential to achieve knowledge and wisdom;The Book of Urizen, a parody of the Book of Genesis, which tells about one of the ‘Eternals‘, Urizen, who separates from his fellows to create his own realm; Jerusalem, about the struggle between intellect and imagination; America: a Prophecy and Europe: A Prophecy in which he praised the American war of Independence and the French Revolution. These works are complex and often obscure and very difficult to interpret.
SONGS OF INNOCENCE: It’s a collection of short poems published in 1789. The poems are tender and optimistic; the language used is simple and childish. They contain descriptions of man’s state of innocence and show Blake’s deep love of nature, beauty, children and innocent creatures. They also introduce the prophetic tone and visionary elements of his later works. In Blake’s vision, innocence wasn’t the opposite of sin or guilty but the opposite of experienced life. It is seen as a state of freedom and happiness and the child represents the free power of imagination. But the child’s world is only apparently full of joy and happiness since he is the innocent victim of parents, society and Institutions. He is exploited by cruel masters and condemned to the adult world of degradation and death. Like Wordsworth, Blake saw the child as the incarnation of purity and the closest link man had with God. In Blake’s poetry, he is often compared to Christ or to the lamb.
SONGS OF EXPERIENCE: this collection was published in 1794. It contains parallel poems to Songs of Innocence, some with the same title, and may be seen as a cry against the tyranny and social injustice Blake saw around him. Blake hoped that these poems could help the adults to understand the horrors of children’s situation. The poems of this collection want to show that innocence is corrupted and destroyed by experience, which is the result of life, a world full of selfishness, cruelty and injustice. Blake saw the limitation of a childlike acceptance of the world and recognized that experience was also necessary in the development of the soul. He also realized that innocence alone cannot reach true wisdom and that man has to grow and endure suffering and misery, too. The poems contained in the Collection are stronger than the ones contained in Songs of Innocence ; they are even more violent in tone and richer in symbolic imagery. In 1795 the two collections, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience were published as a single book with the two titles put together. He added a subtitle, too: Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. This because he intended that the two collections had to be read together because they were opposite and complementary at the same time. They had to show the interdependence of “the two contrary states of the human soul”: joy/sorrow, good/evil, desire/frustration, innocence/experience, reality/dream and so on. Blake does not make any attempt to reconcile their apparent contradiction: Innocence offers a point of view, experience another.
VISIONARY POET: Blake is considered a visionary poet. He reported that he had got visions: a tree full of angels, God looking down on him, his brother Robert’s spirit ascending heavenwards after his death clapping hands for joy. He maintained that he conversed with the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary and talked to some great dead men as Moses, Milton, Dante and others who dictated to him his own words. He was not “mad”, but only a person endowed with a higher visionary capacity of imagination.
IMAGINATION: The imagination is for Blake “God operating in the human soul”. It is the “Divine Vision” of the poet and the only true source of knowledge. Thanks to his imagination, the poet can see beyond the world of things. Further, it is the only means of restoring the unity of spirit that the predominance of reason has destroyed. The imagination enables man “ to see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour”.
THE POET: Blake considers the poet as a prophet inspired by divine messages which he can see thanks to his visionary power.He is a visionary who can enter the hidden world which ordinary people can’t enter. His task is to awaken his generation to restore, through the world of imagination, ideal conditions where man and imagination can be one again. The poet possesses power of imagination and feelings. In one of his letters to Reverend Dr John Trussler he wrote:” I feel that a man may be happy in this world. And I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision…….To the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees….You certainly mistake when you say that the visions of fancy are not to be found in this world. To me this world is all one continued vision of fancy or imagination.”
SYMBOLISM: Blake makes extensive use of symbols: children, flowers and seasons symbolize innocence and imagination while urban industrial landscapes and machines symbolize oppression and rationalism. His symbols are very often symbols of duality and reinforce his philosophy of the contraries. The most famous dual symbols are the Lamb and the Tiger. They represent respectively innocence of childhood, meekness and sweetness of the God of love of the New Testament and experience of adult life and the destructive force of the God of vengeance of the Old Testament.
The tiger has got another dual symbolism: the complementary forces of good and evil which are the vital forces of life, impossible to separate. Then there is a lamb in the tiger, too. In the copper plate illustrating the Lamb, Blake gave the tiger a face resembling that of the lamb.
LIFE: Blake saw life as an interdependence of opposites, in eternal contrast, which coexist in the human beings: joy/sorrow, good/evil, desire/frustration, innocence/experience . He expressed this theory in Marriage of Heaven and Hell. He wrote: “without contraries, there is no progression”. The contraries are essential to life and coexist both in nature and in man.
Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
Little lamb, God bless thee!
Little lamb, God bless thee!
The poem is made up of two ten-line stanzas in rhyming couplets. It is organized as a dialogue: the first stanza contains the question and the second one contains the answer. The mood of the first stanza is the one of gentle happiness of an idyllic pastoral world. The poet asks the little Lamb a series of questions about the identity of his creator. The Lamb is personified and stands for man in his childhood when he is still innocent and not corrupt by the experience of the corrupting world of the adults. The voice asking the question is that of a child or that of the poet, as we can see in the second stanza when he says “I a child and thou a lamb”. The poet is more interested in describing the good qualities of the creator of The Lamb than the lamb itself: He is generous and good and gave the lamb food, clothing and a tender voice. The answer to the question is contained in the second stanza, where the Lamb is identified with Jesus Christ: “He is called by thy name/For he calls himself a Lamb……he became a little child”. Christ is often referred to as “The Lamb of God”, then the creator of the Lamb is God, who put into the Lamb some of His qualities: the meekness and the sweetness. We can find these qualities both in Christ and in the Lamb. The poet established some relationships between God-Christ, the lamb, the child and the poet himself. They all share common features. God-Christ and the child are linked by the fact that God became a man, this to underline that God, the creator of the world, becomes a product of his own creation.
Everything dealing with adult life is deliberately omitted. The rhythm, the Rhyme and the repetitions contained in the poem convey the idea of a nurse’s song.
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare sieze the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And water‘d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
It is made up of six four-line stanzas in rhyming couplet. It conveys the energy of the dual presence of beauty and terror in nature. It opens with an apostrophe referred to the Tiger and goes on with a series of rhetorical questions which have no direct answers. As the Lamb, the Tiger, too, is personified. The poem starts and ends with the same stanza but the last line is different in one word, “dare” instead of “could”. The poet asks the Tiger about the identity of His creator. He is described as immortal, powerful and living in heaven. The poem is built on a series of contrasts which highlight the many aspects of the universe. The tiger is both a symbol of strength and beauty and of terror and fear. As for the Lamb,Blake does not describe the Tiger but what it looks like: he depicts the essence of “tigernesness” and its terrifying aspect. The poem has its climax in the last line of the fifth stanza, when he asks” Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”.This is a very important line because it implies that the two animals have something in common. The answer is of course God, who put into the Tiger, as he had done with the Lamb, some of His qualities: “a fearful symmetry”,that is both beauty and terror. It also implies that opposites can coexist.“Without contraries there is no progression” and so the God of the Old Testament, the God of vengeance, contrasts with the merciful Saviour of the New Testament. The good and the evil, the God of vengeance and The God of mercy and love , the Tiger and the Lamb are contraries but they both are necessary to establish a balance in the world: man must endure the Evil as well as enjoy the Good. Thus the tiger and the lamb are not in opposition but contraries which complete each other. They may symbolize man as a child and as an adult. The former is required innocence, the latter experience. As said before, to stress the interdependence between the tiger and the lamb, Blake in his illustration of the poem gave the tiger the face of the lamb.
THE CHIMNEY SWEEPER: As we can see in an advertisement of the period, chimneys sweepers were mostly children belonging to poor families who had been sold to a master. They were exploited and lived a miserable life unfit to their age ( they were six o seven, if not younger). Being small, they could climb up the chimneys to clean them. Their head was shaved to avoid hair to collect soot. Very often they slept on the bags in which soot had been collected. The job was dangerous and children were often injured.
THE CHIMNEY SWEEPER
(Songs of Innocence)
WHEN my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘’weep! ’weep! ’weep! ’weep!’
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head, 5
That curl’d like a lamb’s back, was shav’d: so I said
‘Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.’
And so he was quiet, and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight!— 10
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them lock’d up in coffins of black.
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he open’d the coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run, 15
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.
Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father, and never want joy. 20
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.
The main theme is the one contained in many poems by Blake: the ill-treatment of poor children. The speaker is a little chimney sweeper. He is sad because “ mother died I was very young” and his father had sold him. He has to work hard to make a living. The story he tells is about another chimney sweeper, Tom Dacre, but it may be applied to himself, too. Tom used to cry when his head was shaved. When Tom got asleep, he had a dream:” Thousands of sweepers…. Were all of them locked up in coffins of black….and by came an Angel….and he opened the coffins and set them all free”. The boys “ wash in the river ……rise upon clouds and sport in the wind “. They were happy and white , without soot, and could merrily play. The Angel also assured Tom that if he had been good, God would have looked after him.
Tom’s dream is based on three main symbols: the dark narrow chimneys, standing for coffins of black, the church, standing for the Angel, religious faith standing for the ‘bright key‘ the Angel had to open the coffins. As far as the Angel and religion, we have to say that they are seen in negative. The Angel only brings false hopes. When he says to Tom “if he’d be a good boy, he’d have God for his father and never want joy”, he is trying to quiet the boy and to make him accept his situation without revolting. The role of the Angel is the same as the role of the raven in Orwell’s Animal farm. Both the raven and the Angel support the masters and tell the animals and the child that if they work hard and obey their masters they will be rewarded.
The little chimney sweeper stands for innocence. Notwithstanding his terrible condition, he does not protest, accepts his situation and continues to suffer and to be exploited. When Tom awakes after the dream, he feels “happy and warm”. His childish innocence makes him accept his destiny: “We rose in the dark, and got with our bags and our brushes to work ”. The last line “so if all do their duty they need not to fear harm”, may seem a Christian message but it is ironic: if the boys submit to their masters, they must not fear harm. But their submission means exploitation. This line is addressed to the adult readers who are not innocent. Blake hopes that they may understand it and may act to better the poor conditions of chimney sweepers in particular and children in general. The accusation to the adults is evident from the irony contained in the last line of the first stanza: “ So your chimneys I sweep…”. Blake uses the possessive “your” referred to the adult readers to involve them in the exploitation of young children.
As far as parents, the boy’s father mentioned in the first stanza is coherent with Blake’s view of the father figure, being cruel and unfeeling. Line 3 contains a play-on-word: “weep”. By removing the initial “s” the verb “to sweep” has been turned into the boy’s cry: weep. The poem consists of six stanzas of four lines each, rhyming aabb. The short stanzas and the regular rhyme scheme are well suited to the speaker, who is a child. The verse pattern creates a simple childlike effect.
THE CHIMNEY SWEEPER
(Songs of experience)
A little black thing among the snow,
Crying! ‘weep! weep!’ in notes of woe!
‘Where are thy father and mother? Say!’ –
‘They are both gone up to the church to pray.
‘Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
‘And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and His priest and king,
Who made up a heaven of our misery.’
It is the parallel poem in Songs of experience. It is structured as a dialogue between the poet and a little chimney sweeper who is crying. The boy is “A little black thing among the snow”. These words emphasize the idea of boys exploited by adults indifferent to their needs. The poet asks him where his parents are and the child answers they have gone to the church to pray, leaving him alone. This is a recurrent attack by Blake to the insensitive parents who don’t care about sons and treat them badly. The poem closes with an attack on God, the Church and the Crown that Blake considers to be the three main agents of oppression.
Like the boy of Songs of Innocence, this boy is crying, too, and suffers. The difference between them is that unlike the one of Songs of Innocence, he does not accept his situation. He sees the world through the eyes of experience, understands the horror of his fate and accuses his parents directly: “ They clothed me in the clothes of death, and taught me to sing the notes of woe”, that is they deprived him of his freedom and infant joy and forced him to suffer. He also attacks society in general and the church in particular and realizes that they were the cause of his exploitation. This is clearly seen in the final couplet: “And are gone to Praise God and His priest and King, Who made up a heaven of our misery”.