William Blake

William Blake, who lived in the latter half of the eighteenth century and the
early part of the nineteenth, was a profoundly stirring poet who was, in large
part, responsible for bringing about the Romantic movement in poetry; was able
to achieve “remarkable results with the simplest means”; and was one
of several poets of the time who restored “rich musicality to the
language” (Appelbaum v). His research and introspection into the human mind
and soul has resulted in his being called the “Columbus of the
psyche,” and because no language existed at the time to describe what he
discovered on his voyages, he created his own mythology to describe what he
found there (Damon ix). He was an accomplished poet, painter, and engraver.

Blake scholars disagree on whether or not Blake was a mystic. In the Norton
Anthology, he is described as “an acknowledged mystic, [who] saw visions
from the age of four” (Mack 783). Frye, however, who seems to be one of the
most influential Blake scholars, disagrees, saying that Blake was a visionary
rather than a mystic. “‘Mysticism’ . . . means a certain kind of religious
techniques difficult to reconcile with anyone’s poetry,” says Frye (Frye
8). He next says that “visionary” is “a word that Blake uses, and
uses constantly” and cites the example of Plotinus, the mystic, who
experienced a “direct apprehension of God” four times in his life, and
then only with “great effort and relentless discipline.” He finally
cites Blake’s poem “I rose up at the dawn of day,” in which Blake
states, I am in God’s presence night & day, And he never turns his face away
(Frye 9). Besides all of these achievements, Blake was a social critic of his
own time and considered himself a prophet of times to come. Frye says that
“all his poetry was written as though it were about to have the immediate
social impact of a new play” (Frye 4). His social criticism is not only
representative of his own country and era, but strikes profound chords in our
own time as well. As Appelbaum said in the introduction to his anthology English
Romantic Poetry, “[Blake] was not fully rediscovered and rehabilitated
until a full century after his death” (Appelbaum v). For Blake was not
truly appreciated during his life, except by small cliques of individuals, and
was not well-known during the rest of the nineteenth century (Appelbaum v).

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Blake lived during a time of intense social change. The American Revolution, the
French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution all happened during his
lifetime. These changes gave Blake a chance to see one of the most dramatic
stages in the transformation of the Western world from a somewhat feudal,
agricultural society to an industrial society where philosophers and political
thinkers such as Locke, Franklin, and Paine championed the rights of the
individual. Some of these changes had Blake’s approval; others did not. One
example of Blake’s disapproval of changes that happened in his time comes in his
poem “London,” from his work Songs of Experience. In
“London,” which has been described as summing up many implications of
Songs of Experience, Blake describes the woes that the Industrial Revolution and
the breaking of the common man’s ties to the land have brought upon him (Mack
785). For instance, the narrator in “London” describes both the Thames
and the city streets as “chartered,” or controlled by commercial
interests; he refers to “mind-forged manacles”; he relates that every
man’s face contains “Marks of weakness, marks of woe”; and he
discusses the “every cry of every Man” and “every Infant’s cry of
fear.” He connects marriage and death by referring to a “marriage
hearse” and describes it as “blighted with plague.” He also talks
about “the hapless Soldier’s sigh” and the “youthful Harlot’s
curse” and describes “blackening Churches” and palaces running
with blood (“London”). “London” and many of Blake’s other
works dealing with a similar theme, particularly those from the Songs of
Experience, strike a particular nerve for those who are living in a society
where the cost of living compared with income is steadily increasing, where
AIDS, Ebola, and other new and frightening diseases are becoming increasingly
common, and where the public is becoming increasingly disillusioned about the
reliability and trustworthiness of politicians. These works resonate for a
generation which has to deal with exponentially increasing population problems
and with rapidly increasing demands on our immigration facilities and resources.

They strike a special chord with a nation that, due to the aforementioned
problems, the rise of violent crime, and other considerations, is rapidly
desensitizing itself to the “marks of weakness, marks of woe” that we
are becoming accustomed to seeing on the faces of passers-by on the street.

Blake did, however, approve of some of the measures that individuals and
societies took to gain and maintain individual freedom. As Appelbaum said,
“He was liberal in politics, sensitive to the oppressive government
measures of his day, [and] favorably inspired by the American Revolutionary War
and the French Revolution” (Appelbaum v). According to Keynes, Blake wrote
many positive and appreciative things about the revolutionary American political
thinker Thomas Paine, for instance, such as “The Bishop never saw the
Everlasting Gospel any more than Tom Paine” (Damon 318). As
“London” shows, however, Blake did not entirely approve of the
measures taken to forward the causes he longed to advance: “London”
refers to how the “hapless Soldier’s sigh/ runs in blood down Palace
walls” (“London” 791). Among many other events which took place
during the French Revolution, this could possibly refer to the storming of the
Bastille or the executions of the French nobility. Blake also espoused many
other notions with which we are now familiar, and occasionally even believe to
be self-evident. For instance, in Jerusalem, Blake proposes the Brotherhood of
Man as the only solution to the world’s problems, both individual and
international (Damon 60). According to Blake, we are all brothers because we are
all sons of the Father, and all have Jesus (who often symbolizes Imagination,
Humanity, and the source of everything for Blake) in us (Damon 60; Damon
158-159). This is very similar to the fundamental rights of man espoused in the
Declaration of Independence, which states that “all men are created
equal” because they are “endowed by their Creator with certain
unalienable Rights” (Declaration 10-20). Blake also believed that all life
was inherently holy; Damon says that his religion “became all-inclusive
when he declared that every thing that lives is holy. This was a natural
conclusion from the ancient belief that all things were created from the divine
substance” (344). This becomes especially important and vital to us in an
age where terrorist attacks are becoming increasingly common (witness the
bombings at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and the Oklahoma City building and
increased security on international airline flights), the debate over abortion
has led some anti-abortion activists to begin shooting doctors who perform
abortions (such as the shooting of Dr. David L. Gunn in 1993), and the major
nations of the world have nuclear weapons enough to kill every person on the
earth multiple times. Blake’s views on religion are also particularly relevant
to the modern world. As Appelbaum said of Blake, “Blake replaced the arid
atheism or tepid deism of the encyclopedists and their disciples with a glowing
new personal religion” (Appelbaum iii). Besides rejecting “arid
atheism” and “tepid deism,” Blake also attacked conventional
religion. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell he wrote “Prisons are built
with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion” and “As the
caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays
his curse on the fairest joys” (“Proverbs” 19;
“Proverbs” 20). Rather than accepting a traditional religion from an
organized church, Blake designed his own mythology (based primarily upon the
Bible and Greek mythology) to accompany his personal, revealed religion. Blake’s
personal religion was an outgrowth of his search for the Everlasting Gospel,
which he believed to be the original, pre-Jesus revelation which Jesus preached.

As Blake said, “all had originally one language and one religion: this was
the religion of Jesus, the everlasting Gospel. Antiquity preaches the Gospel of
Jesus” (Damon 344). Blake’s religion was based upon the joy of man, which
he believed glorified God (Damon 344). One of Blake’s strongest objections to
orthodox Christianity is that it encourages the suppression of natural desires
and discourages earthly joy; in A Vision of the Last Judgement, Blake says that
“Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed & govern’d
their Passions or have No Passions, but because they have Cultivated their
Understandings. The Treasures of Heaven are not Negations of Passion, but
Realities of Intellect, from which all the Passions Emanate Uncurbed in their
Eternal Glory” (Damon 344). Blake also believes that the religion of this
world is actually the worship of the entity that St. Paul calls “the god of
this world” in II Corinthians 4:4: Satan. It should be noted here that
Blake does not conceive of Satan as an incarnate horned quasi-deity, but rather
as Error and the “State of Death”; Blake also explicitly says that
Satan is “not a Human existence” (Damon 355). Blake believes that
orthodox Christians, in part because of their denial of earthly joy, are
actually worshiping Satan, which is to say that they are in Error (Damon
344-345; Damon xi). Since the 1960s, more and more Westerners have joined faith
movements which promote individuals deciding on their own ethics and beliefs, or
to find their own way to salvation. Examples of these groups include some
Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, and certain liberal Christian movements,
such as Unitarian-Universalism (which can also be a non-Christian faith,
depending on the individual follower). As more people begin to question
traditional, dogmatic Western religion, Blake’s vision of individual revelation
and a personal mythology makes powerful sense to many people. Blake cautions us,
however, against deluding ourselves with our personal mythologies in his poem
“The Little Black boy” from Songs of Experience. In “Black
Boy,” Blake describes a young black male, who is just becoming aware of the
societal differences between himself and a white boy (“English child”)
and uses his mother’s mythology (which he makes his own) to relegate the
solution of the problems of racism to an imagined afterlife where I’ll shade him
from the heat till he can bear To lean in joy upon our father’s knee (Mack 784).

Even more compelling to a modern audience (but definitely less important to
Blake) is his emphasis upon science as a tool of understanding. The last line of
his unfinished epic poem The Four Zoas is “the dark Religions are departed
; sweet Science reigns” (Damon xi). Many modern individuals would
accept science while failing to attempt to create a personal mythology, and this
is not at all what Blake is looking for. Does Blake provide a solution to the
ills of this world? Is this solution as relevant to modern times as it was to
his own? Emphatically, yes to both questions. The similarities between our own
age and Blake’s are striking. Blake had the Industrial Revolution; we are living
in the age of the Information Revolution, which is, with the Internet, entering
a new phase which will enable information to be distributed on a scale never
before possible. Blake lived in a time when greedy upper-class capitalists
exploited the working class for personal profit; we are living in an age in
which the nuclear family, with its one working parent and its one parent staying
at home to raise the children, is becoming less common and feasible even as the
cost of living rises. Blake lived in an age where Deism, a faith which denied
any possibility of direct experience with God, had captured the minds of the
more intelligent people of the West; we live in an age of doubt, searching,
rejection of traditional dogmatic religion, and science with no mystical
experience. Certainly Blake’s vision of a personal mythology actualizing an
individual, revealed religion can offer as much to our society as it did to
Blake’s. However, whether Blake’s offering will save our television-oriented,
fast-food, pop-culture society is another question altogether.

William Blake

William Blake The poetry of William Blake is renowned for its critique of society and injustice as well as expressing strong religious influences. Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience were written concerning the destiny of the human spirit and the differences between how children and adults view and understand the world. Blake believed that man had the potential to attain both wisdom through experience and joy through innocence. He admired the innocence of children and thought that self-awareness could be realized through the recapturing of the wonderment and imagination of a child. Songs of Innocence reflect that innocence and joy. Songs of Experience were written to expound upon how the knowledge of injustices, evils, and confusion arrive as a result of life experience.

These poems focus on understanding the evils and injustices of the world without becoming tainted by them in order to gain an awareness of our true identities. Two of Blakes most well known poems are “The Lamb” from Songs of Innocence and “The Tyger” from Songs of Experience. Each work contains elements relating to their themes. “The Lamb” is written through the viewpoint of a child as a symbol of innocence analogous to “The Tyger” as an example of experience. In “The Lamb”, Blake discusses many points pertaining to religion.

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The lamb is described as being meek, vulnerable, and harmless when Blake says, “Gave thee clothing of delight, Softest clothing, woolly, bright; Gave thee such a tender voice” (lines 3-7). The picture of the lamb feeding”by the stream and oer the mead” (line 4) suggests Gods kindness in creation. We are reminded in the second stanza that God, who created the lamb, is also like the lamb. “For he calls Himself a Lamb. He is meek, and He is mild” (lines 14-15).

After “He became a little child” (line 16), Jesus became known as The Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world. The innocence of the lamb is shown to be wholesome, good, and right, free from the corruption of the world. “The Tyger” also deals with religious elements and creation asking, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” (line 20). The first stanza asks the question of what kind of being could be powerful enough to create “thy fearful symmetry” (line 4). Blake is amazed at the complexity of the animal, “what art, could twist the sinews of thy heart” (lines 9-10), the power that caused its heart to beat, and at the formation of tigers brain.

We cannot be completely positive of what the tiger represents, but with its fearsome appearance and savage nature, the majesty and power of Gods creation is manifested. The tiger is terrifying in its beauty, strength, complexity, and vitality. The lamb is obviously one of Gods creations with innocence and meekness with which he must be pleased, but Blake wonders whether He is as pleased with the tiger, “Did he smile his work to see?” (line 19). The poem ends with the poet questioning not who “could” create the animal, but who would “dare” to create such an animal. Because the tiger represents experience, it can be inferred that experience is not something to be desired and is evil.

Through further examination we realize that experience, like the tiger, is to be respected and revered, but not enjoyed. The wisdom that comes from experience allows one to ponder lifes mysteries, inherent complications and problems, injustices, and abuses without becoming tainted by them while maintaining a state of innocence. The Tiger and The Lamb are complementary due to their examination of dissimilar, almost contradictory viewpoints. When analyzed together, we realize that there must be a union of opposites where innocence and experience are fused. Simply returning to a state of innocence and ignoring the lessons taught through experience is not sufficient for us to become aware of our own identities, but recognizing and understanding the evils around us without becoming tainted by them is how we achieve self-awareness.


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