2. William Blake

2. William Blake
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1. Blake the man and the poet

William Blake was born in London in 1757 into a Lower class family. At ten years was sent to a drawing school and then apprenticed to an engraver. At twenty two he entered the Royal Academy.

Engraving, illuminating and painting were to remain the main sources of this meager income throughout his life. In 1789 he published Songs of innocence. He engraved, instead of printing, his poems, adding a picture that translated the poetic theme in visual terms. In 1794 he published Songs of Innocence and of Experience in a combined volume.

The sale of this and other books was not a success and Blake was forced to illustrate the work of other authors.

Despite his dislike of patronage, he was obliged to look after patrons and rely on their protection and money almost till his death in 1827. 

Of his other works, the so-called prophetic books expressed his belief in the poet as a prophet and sympathy for revolutionary movements; his late mythological poems are often obscured as they are full of a personal mythology and were little known in his time. Blake‘s work as a whole was not really appreciated until the end of the 19th century.

Blake’s Poetry

Blake‘s collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience represents only a fragment of his total poetic production, but well illustrates his major themes and his style. 
Though contrasting with one another, the two parts of the collection are meant to be complementary.

Externally the innocence seems to apply to the condition of man in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, but psychologically it applies to the condition of the child. 
The inner state of innocence is externalized in a world of images such as the child and the lamb.

Experience is the world of normal adult life, when people are incapable of spontaneity, and the social order produces inequality. It is a state of life whose external symbols are sounds and sights of distress or a creature like the tiger.

The two states coexist within the human being – they are “the two contrary states of the human soul”. 

Behind this dual vision of life lies a parallel dual vision of God:  the lamb is the symbol of God’s innocence; the tiger is a powerful symbol of energy whose meaning extends to questioning the nature of God.

It has often been said that Blake‘s intensely visionary and individual poetry marked the beginning of a new age. He distrusted the “Reasoning Power in Man” because he associated it with the rejection of faith, inspiration and imagination. For him imagination is the ability to see more deeply into the life of things.

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The internal mind shapes the way man sees the external world. So the poet, who is endowed with imagination, can see beyond surface reality. In The Lamb a little lamb is transfigured into the symbol of what a loving god can create

Blake was passionately involved in the political and social issues surrounding the American and French revolutions; he supported the London riots for American independence and was particularly sympathetic to the egalitarian claims of the French Revolution. His poems provide ample evidence of his affinity with the poor and the oppressed.

The child and the theme of childhood are to be found in both collections with different features. Child retains the innocence of a new-born infant who is loved and protected by God or when entrapped in the wicked world of adults regains his freedom in a luminous dream. Child neglected by the parents and by society is a common figure and is symbolic of the oppressed.

Blake‘s view of the poet is that of a visionary man, gifted with imagination, whose work parallels that of God in creation. He tries to understand the value of the creation, questioning the lamb and the tiger; the tone is often that of a prophet, emotional and grave, indignant and compassionate for the oppressed. His task is to warn men against the evils they themselves are a source of; he aimed at a wide reading public.

2. Blake’s Symbolism

Blake’s famous symbols are children, flowers and seasons to symbolize innocence. 

Meanwhile, urban and industrial landscapes and machines represent oppression and rationalism, as we can see in the poem “London”, a powerful description of suffering brought by the Industrial Revolution.

His longer poems revolve around characters he has invented to represent certain positions towards existence. One of Blake’s most famous dual symbols and the one most closely linked with his reflections on the French Revolution is the Lamb and the Tiger.

The Lamb and the Tiger

His “Lamb” is a symbol of the innocence of childhood. The childlike qualities of the Lamb refer also to the God of love and infinite forgiveness as incarnated in the baby Jesus. The figure of the poet can also be compared to that of the Lamb and the child.

The symbolism of Blake’s “Tyger” may refer to a geometrically perfect form. But to Blake this symmetry is awful because it embodies the contradictory and complementary forces of good and evil which are impossible to separate. 

Like the “Tyger”, freedom and revolution are at once glorious, because they are a kind of divine creative energy; and terrible, because they lead to death and horror. 

Like the Lamb, the Tyger is innocent and in a similar way the violence and destruction of the revolution are also innocent, like the destructive impulses of a child.

Blake did not turn away from the idea of Revolution towards nostalgia for an idyllic world of the past. He had no solutions to the Revolution’s contradictory forces of beauty and horror. For him the contradiction was itself the source of the Revolution’s vital energy. He chose simply to describe these forces without trying to resolve them harmoniously.

3. A world of imagination and vision

Blake is fundamentally dissatisfied with society, which lacks the power of imagination and uncorrupted feeling. He thinks that the poet possesses these powers.

The true poet is a visionary who sees what remains hidden from ordinary mortals. 

Essentially Blake believes that subjective experience is more important than objective truth. In this he differs from most of the other Romantic poets. He was an opponent of scientific rationalism and of Newton in particular.

4. Stylistic features

Blake uses very simple syntax and vocabulary. This simplicity is made even more evident by the repetition of certain words and lines, as well as the regularity of stress patterns and rhyme schemes which give his poems a musical rhythm. 

However, the apparent simplicity of Blake’s verse is often misleading and masks complex argument and reflection, especially in the way the poems are interrelated.

5. Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789)

In his most famous works, the poet saw Innocence as a state of freedom and happiness, linked to childhood, because children represented the power of imagination

The tone is naïve, childlike and the style clear. This idea is not new but it comes from Jean Jacques Rousseau: innocence is not only a period of life but also a state of mind. 

Instead Experience represents the corruption of innocence, it is a result of disillusionment for the consequences of the French Revolution, in fact the tone is dark, it is a sort of protest for social injustices. 

He thought that adults lose their imagination because of the experience in life, which has an important role in their development. But there are some adults who don’t lose innocence, and they are artists: they have their own experiences but also have the gift of imagination. 

So he thought that imagination can reach ultimate wisdom through visionary capacity.

There are children, flowers, angels, animals seen as symbols of innocence, while cities, nights, and houses represent experience. The sun, swords or animals like the tiger are seen as symbols of creative energy.

6. The Lamb

The poem is contained in the Songs of Innocence and it is an invocation to the lamb in the title. In the first stanza the lamb is shown as free and happy in an unspoiled environment. 

The lamb’s innocence and the perfect harmony of its existence. In the second stanza where the traditional identification of the lamb with Christ is confirmed by the voice of the narrator-child. Both the child and the lamb are united in God’s name.

7. The Tyger

The poem is contained in the Songs of Experience and its object is considered the antithesis of the Lamb.

The Tyger is frightening yet fascinating. The contrast here is between the darkness and flames and fire, fire is the link between the tiger’s strength and the metaphor of the last part of the song, where the tiger is seen as God’s creation. The poem ends with a question which casts a doubt on the possibility of understanding the universe through the senses and reason.

8. London

This is a committed poem. This work shows Blake’s view of London and of the suffering brought about by industrialisation.

The person who is speaking is the poet and the setting in place and time is London suburb at midnight. The poet perceives the sorrowful, miserable, appalling scene (caused by poverty, misery and fatigue) through sight and hearing.

The repetitions which Blake uses in the poem are made to underline the condition of suffering and disease surrounding the poet and to create a sense of obsession and anxiety.

The word ‘chartered’ is related to an idea of corruption, materialism, and the business of a commercial city. It underlines that also natural elements are dominated, controlled by an economic interest, a profit.

There is a very powerful metaphor: ‘the mind-forged manacles’. It suggests an idea of imprisonment, mental slavery, oppression, a sense of limit in imagination, a let of freedom in political repression of that time. The manacles are created by a general political attitude, by social institutions.

9. Social interests

William Blake was a total artist but lived in isolation for his unconventional way of living. 

He was enthusiastic about the French Revolution and its principles, he believed in a free world, with no injustices, thinking that only a revolution would abolish them. 

He was unable to stand any bonds, and he was a critic of England of his time. He also believed in a world where everyone love each other in a spirit of universal brotherhood, with no barriers; he also criticided the slave trade and the exploitation of young children, as he wrote in his poems.

He considered himself a seer, and was sure that intellect destroys the imagination, the most important men’s faculty.

His works describe the fight among the spirit of intellect and of imagination; he explained his concern with the fight of the soul to express its natural energies when restricted by reason. 

His philosophy took a Christianity direction, but far from traditional, and the struggle between intellect and imagination found a solution in the coming of Christ.

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