In his Life of William Blake (1863) Alexander Gilchrist warned his readers that Blake "neither wrote nor drew for the many, hardly for work'y-day men at all, rather for children and angels; himself 'a divine child,' whose playthings were sun, moon, and stars, the heavens and the earth." Yet Blake himself believed that his writings were of national importance and that they could be understood by a majority of men. Far from being an isolated mystic, Blake lived and worked in the teeming metropolis of London at a time of great social and political change that profoundly influenced his writing. After the peace established in 1762, the British Empire seemed secure, but the storm wave begun with the American Revolution in 1775 and the French Revolution in 1789 changed forever the way men looked at their relationship to the state and to the established church. Poet, painter, and engraver, Blake worked to bring about a change both in the social order and in the minds of men.
One may wonder how a child born in moderate surroundings would become such an original artist and powerful writer. Unlike many well-known writers of his day, Blake was born into a family of moderate means. His father, James, was a hosier, one who sells stockings, gloves, and haberdashery, and the family lived at 28 Broad Street in London in an unpretentious but "respectable" neighborhood. Blake was born on 28 November 1757. In all, seven children were born to James and Catherine Harmitage Blake, but only five survived infancy. Blake seems to have been closest to his youngest brother, Robert, who died while yet young.
By all accounts Blake had a pleasant and peaceful childhood, made even more pleasant by his skipping any formal schooling. As a young boy he wandered the streets of London and could easily escape to the surrounding countryside. Even at an early age, however, his unique mental powers would prove disquieting. According to Gilchrist, on one ramble he was startled to "see a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars." His parents were not amused at such a story, and only his mother's pleadings prevented him from receiving a beating.
His parents did, however, encourage his artistic talents, and the young Blake was enrolled at the age of ten in Pars' drawing school. The expense of continued formal training in art, however, was a prohibitive one, and the family decided that at the age of fourteen William would be apprenticed to a master engraver. At first his father took him to William Ryland, a highly respected engraver. William, however, resisted the arrangement telling his father, "I do not like the man's face: it looks as if he will live to be hanged!" The grim prophecy was to come true twelve years later. Instead of Ryland the family settled on a lesser-known engraver but a man of considerable talents, James Basire. Basire seems to have been a good master, and Blake was a good student of the craft. Blake was later to be especially grateful to Basire for sending the young student to Westminster Abbey to make drawings of monuments Basire was commissioned to engrave. The vast Gothic dimensions of Westminster and the haunting presence of the tombs of kings affected Blake's romantic sensibilities and were to provide fertile ground for his active imagination.
At the age of twenty-one Blake left Basire's apprenticeship and enrolled for a time in the newly formed Royal Academy. It was as a journeyman engraver, however, that Blake earned his living. Booksellers employed him to engrave illustrations for publications ranging from novels such as Don Quixote to serials such as Ladies' Magazine.
One incident at this time affected Blake deeply. In June of 1780 riots broke out in London incited by the anti-Catholic preaching of Lord George Gordon but also by resistance to continued war against the American colonists. Houses, churches, and prisons were burned by uncontrollable mobs bent on destruction. On one evening, whether by design or by accident, Blake found himself at the front of the mob that burned Newgate prison. These images of violent destruction and unbridled revolution gave Blake powerful material for works such as Europe (1794) and America (1793).
Not all of the young man's interests were confined to art and politics. After one ill-fated romance, Blake met Catherine Boucher, an attractive and compassionate woman who took pity on Blake's tales of being spurned. After a year's courtship the couple were married on 18 August 1782. The parish registry shows that Catherine, like many women of her class, could not sign her own name. Blake soon taught her to read and to write, and under Blake's tutoring she also became an accomplished draftsman, helping him in the execution of his designs.
By all accounts the marriage was a successful one, but no children were born to the Blakes. Catherine also managed the household affairs and was undoubtedly of great help in making ends meet on Blake's always limited income.
Blake's friend John Flaxman introduced Blake to the bluestocking Harriet Mathew, wife of the Rev. Henry Mathew and a celebrated lady of fashion whose drawing room was often a meeting place for artists and musicians. There Blake gained favor by reciting and even singing his early poems. Thanks to the support of Flaxman and Mrs. Mathew, a thin volume of poems was published under the title Poetical Sketches (1783). Many of these poems are imitations of classical models, much like the sketches of models of antiquity the young artist made to learn his trade. Even here, however, one sees signs of Blake's protest against war and the tyranny of kings. David Erdman argues that the ballad "Gwin, King of Norway" is a protest against King George's treatment of the American colonies, a subject Blake treated more extensively in America (1793). Only about fifty copies of Poetical Sketches are known to have been printed. Blake's financial enterprises also did not fare well. In 1784, after his father's death, Blake used part of the money he inherited to set up shop as a printseller with his friend James Parker. The Blakes moved to 27 Broad Street, next door to the family home and close to Blake's brothers. The business did not do well, however, and the Blakes soon moved out.
Of more concern to Blake was the deteriorating health of his favorite brother, Robert. Blake tended to his brother in his illness and according to Gilchrist watched the spirit of his brother escape his body in his death: "At the last solemn moment, the visionary eyes beheld the released spirit ascend heaven ward through the matter-of-fact ceiling, 'clapping its hands for joy.'"
Blake always felt the spirit of Robert lived with him. He even announced that it was Robert who informed him how to illustrate his poems in "illuminated writing." Blake's technique was to produce his text and design on a copper plate with an impervious liquid. The plate was then dipped in acid so that the text and design remained in relief. That plate could be used to print on paper, and the final copy would be then hand colored.
After experimenting with this method in a series of aphorisms entitled There is No Natural Religion and All Religions are One (1788?), Blake designed the series of plates for the poems entitled Songs of Innocence and dated the title page 1789. Blake continued to experiment with the process of illuminated writing and in 1794 combined the early poems with companion poems entitled Songs of Experience. The title page of the combined set announces that the poems show "the two Contrary States of the Human Soul." Clearly Blake meant for the two series of poems to be read together, and Robert Gleckner has pointed out in reading the poems one should always consider the point of view of the speaker of the poem and the context of the situation.
The introductory poems to each series display Blake's dual image of the poet as both a "piper" and a "Bard." As man goes through various stages of innocence and experience in the poems, the poet also is in different stages of innocence and experience. The pleasant lyrical aspect of poetry is shown in the role of the "piper" while the more somber prophetic nature of poetry is displayed by the stern Bard.
In the "Introduction" to Songs of Innocence, Blake presents the poet in the form of a simple shepherd: "Piping down the valleys wild / Piping songs of pleasant glee." The frontispiece displays a young shepherd simply dressed and holding a pipe, and it is clear Blake is establishing a pastoral world. The "piping songs" are poems of pure pleasure.
The songs of pleasure are interrupted by the visionary appearance of an angel who asks for songs of more seriousness:
"Pipe a song about a Lamb!"
So I piped with merry chear.
"Piper, pipe that song again."
So I piped: he wept to hear.
The piper is no longer playing his songs for his own enjoyment. Now the piper is in the position of a poet playing at the request of an appreciative audience. The "song about a Lamb" suggests a poem about the "Lamb of God," Christ.
The child commands that the poet not keep the songs for himself but share them with his audience:
"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.
The "book" is Songs of Innocence, which is designed in a form that "all may read." The simple piper is now a true poet. He no longer writes only for his own enjoyment but for the delight of his audience. The piper is inspired by the directions of the child, and the poet is inspired by his vision of his audience. The child vanishes as the author interiorizes his vision of his audience and makes it a central part of his work. Immediately after the child's disappearance, the author begins the actual physical composition of the poem by plucking the hollow reed for his poem. At the end of the poem the poet is no longer the simple shepherd of Arcadia playing for his own amusement. Now he writes his poems for "Every child" of England.
The "Introduction" to Songs of Experience is a companion to the earlier poem, and, as a poem written in the state of experience, it presents a different view of the nature of the poet and his relation to his audience.
The strident tone of the first stanza provides a marked contrast to the gentle piping of the first poem and reminds us that we are now in the state of experience:
Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past and Future sees:
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk'd among the ancient trees.
This is not an invocation, but a direct command to the reader to sit up and pay attention. Instead of playing at the request of his audience, the poet now demands that his reader listen to him. The speaker now has authority because of what he has heard. The voice of the poet is that of the ancient Bard and that also of the biblical prophet who has heard the "Holy Word," the word of God. Assuming the role of the prophet and the Bard gives the modern poet a sense of biblical authority to speak on matters sacred and profane.
With his authority, the Bard is more willing to instruct his audience than is the piper. The Bard repeats the call of the Holy Word to fallen man. The message repeated by the Bard is that man still "might control" the world of nature and bring back the "fallen light" of vision.
Blake presents two sides of his view of the poet in these introductory poems. Neither one should be dismissed in favor of the other. The poet is both a pleasant piper playing at the request of his audience and a stern Bard lecturing an entire nation. In part this is Blake's interpretation of the ancient dictum that poetry should both delight and instruct. More important, for Blake the poet is a man who speaks both from the personal experience of his own vision and from the "inherited" tradition of ancient Bards and prophets who carried the Holy Word to the nations.
In reading any of the poems, one has to be aware of the mental "state" of the speaker of the poems. In some cases the speakers address the same issue, but from entirely different perspectives. The child of "The Chimney Sweeper" in Songs of Innocence lives in deplorable conditions and is clearly exploited by those around him: "So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep." Yet in his childish state he explains away his misery with a dream of a promised afterlife where God will be his father and he will "never want joy." The same issue of child exploitation is addressed in "The Chimney Sweeper" of Songs of Experience. The speaker is also a child, but one who understands the social forces that have reduced him to misery:
"And because I am happy, & dance & sing
They think they have done me no injury.
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King.
Who make up a heaven of our misery."
In each poem the reader can see what the speaker can not always see because of his unique perspective: religion and government share a responsibility in the persecution of children.
The famous companion poems "The Lamb" and "The Tyger" are also written on the same subject: man's conception of God. Yet, how man understands God depends on man's view of God's divinity. In "The Lamb" the speaker makes the traditional association between a lamb and the "Lamb of God," Christ:
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild;
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb.
The speaker sees God in terms he can understand. God is gentle and kind and very much like us. The close association between the "I," "child," and "lamb" suggests that all men share in the same spiritual brotherhood.
The speaker in "The Tyger" also sees God in terms he can understand, but he sees him from a different perspective. The raging violence of the animal forces him to ask what kind of God could create such terror:
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?
The answer, of course, is never given, but again the reader should be able to perceive more than the speaker of the poem. God did make both the lamb and the tyger, and his nature contains both the gentleness of the lamb and the violence of the tyger. Neither perspective is true by itself; both have to be understood.
The two states of innocence and experience are not always clearly separate in the poems, and one can see signs of both states in many poems. The companion poems titled "Holy Thursday" are on the same subject, the forced marching of poor children to St. Paul's Cathedral in London. The speaker in the state of innocence approves warmly of the progression of children:
'Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow[.]
The brutal irony is that in this world of truly "innocent" children there are evil men who repress the children, round them up like so many herd of cattle, and force them to show their piety. In this state of innocence, experience is very much present.
The speaker of the companion "Holy Thursday" presents an entirely different perspective:
Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduc'd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
The speaker of experience understands that the children have been brutalized and places the blame for this condition not just on the "Grey headed beadles" who have direct responsibility for the children but on the country at large. In a "rich and fruitful land" like England, it is appalling that children are allowed to suffer:
For where-e'er the sun does shine,
And where-e'er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall[.]
If experience has a way of creeping into the world of innocence, innocence also has a way of creeping into experience. The golden land where the "sun does shine" and the "rain does fall" is a land of bountiful goodness and innocence. But even here in this blessed land, there are children starving. The sharp contrast between the two conditions makes the social commentary all the more striking and supplies the energy of the poem.
The contrast between innocence and experience is also apparent in another illuminated book produced in 1789, The Book of Thel. Thel is a maiden who laments the passing of youth and of innocence: "O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water, / Why fade these children of the spring, born but to smile & fall?" Thel questions elements of nature, like the Lilly of the Valley and the Cloud, that are beautiful but transitory. Yet each understands that the transitory nature of beauty is necessary. The Cloud answers Thel's complaint by saying that "Every thing that lives / Lives not alone nor for itself." Thel is innocent but when one is stuck in a state of innocence there can be no growth.
Thel is allowed to enter into the world of experience, and she is startled by a voice from her own grave:
"Why a tender curb upon the youthful burning boy?
Why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire?"
The Virgin is shocked by this peek into her own sexuality and mortality and runs back to the quiet vales of Har "with a shriek." Blake satirizes those who are unable to see the necessary connection between innocence and experience, the spiritual world and the physical world. Thel's world of soft watercolors is not enough. She cannot understand that even the lowly worm is loved by God and serves his part in creating life.
The storming of the Bastille in Paris in 1789 and the agonies of the French Revolution sent shock waves through England. Some hoped for a corresponding outbreak of liberty in England while others feared a breakdown of the social order. In much of his writing Blake argues against the monarchy. In his early Tiriel (written circa 1789) Blake traces the fall of a tyrannical king.
Politics was surely often the topic of conversation at the publisher Joseph Johnson's house, where Blake was often invited. There Blake met important literary and political figures such as William Godwin, Joseph Priestly, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Paine. According to one legend Blake is even said to have saved Paine's life by warning him of his impending arrest. Whether or not that is true, it is clear that Blake was familiar with some of the leading radical thinkers of his day.
In The French Revolution Blake celebrates the rise of democracy in France and the fall of the monarchy. King Louis represents a monarchy that is old and dying. The sick king is lethargic and unable to act: "From my window I see the old mountains of France, like aged men, fading away." The "old mountains" of monarchy are doomed to collapse under the pressure of the people and their representatives in the assembly. The "voice of the people" demands the removal of the king's troops from Paris, and their departure at the end of the first book signals the triumph of democracy.
On the title page for book one of The French Revolution Blake announces that it is "A Poem in Seven Books," but none of the other books has been found. The "Advertisement" to the poem promises "The remaining Books of the Poem are finished, and will be published in their Order." The first book was set in type in 1791, but exists only in proof copies. Johnson never published the poem, perhaps because of fear of prosecution, or perhaps because Blake himself withdrew it from publication. Johnson did have cause to be nervous. Erdman points out that in the same year booksellers were thrown in jail for selling the works of Thomas Paine.
In America (1793) Blake also addresses the idea of revolution, but the poem is less a commentary on the actual revolution in America as it is a commentary on universal principles that are at work in any revolution. The fiery figure of Orc represents all revolutions:
The fiery joy, that Urizen perverted to ten commands,
What night he led the starry hosts thro' the wide wilderness,
That stony law I stamp to dust; and scatter religion abroad
To the four winds as a torn book, & none shall gather the leaves.
The same force that causes the colonists to rebel against King George is the force that overthrows the perverted rules and restrictions of established religions.
The revolution in America suggests to Blake a similar revolution in England. In the poem the king, like the ancient pharaohs of Egypt, sends pestilence to America to punish the rebels, but the colonists are able to redirect the forces of destruction to England. Erdman suggests that Blake is thinking of the riots in England during the war and the chaotic condition of the English troops, many of whom deserted. Writing this poem in the 1790s, Blake also surely imagined the possible effect of the French Revolution on England.
Another product of the radical 1790s is The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Written and etched between 1790 and 1793, Blake's poem brutally satirizes oppressive authority in church and state. The poem also satirizes the works of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish philosopher whose ideas once attracted Blake's interests.
The powerful opening of the poem suggests a world of violence: "Rintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burden'd air / Hungry clouds swag on the deep." The fire and smoke suggest a battlefield and the chaos of revolution. The cause of that chaos is analyzed at the beginning of the poem. The world has been turned upside down. The "just man" has been turned away from the institutions of church and state, and in his place are fools and hypocrites who preach law and order but create chaos. Those who proclaim restrictive moral rules and oppressive laws as "goodness" are in themselves evil. Hence to counteract this repression, Blake announces that he is of the "Devil's Party" that will advocate freedom and energy and gratified desire.
The "Proverbs of Hell" are clearly designed to shock the reader out of his commonplace notion of what is good and what is evil:
Prisons are built with stones of Law,
Brothels with bricks of Religion.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
It is the oppressive nature of church and state that has created the repulsive prisons and brothels. Sexual energy is not an inherent "evil," but the repression of that energy is. The preachers of morality fail to understand that God is in all things, including the sexual nature of men and women.
Blake is, of course, not advocating moral and political anarchy, but a proper balance of energy and its opposing force, reason. Reason is defined as "the bound or outward circumference of Energy." Reason is a vital and necessary force to define Energy, and "Without Contraries is no progression." The problem now is that the forces of reason have predominated, and the forces of energy must be let loose.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell contains many of the basic religious ideas developed in the major prophecies. Blake analyzes the development of organized religion as a perversion of ancient visions: "The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & Numerous senses could perceive." Ancient man created those gods to express his vision of the spiritual properties that he perceived in the physical world. So far, so good, but the gods began to take on a life of their own separate from man: "Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of, & enslav'd the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood." The "system" or organized religion keeps man from perceiving the spiritual in the physical. The gods are seen as separate from man, and an elite race of priests is developed to approach the gods: "Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast." Instead of looking for God on remote altars, Blake warns, man should look within.
In August of 1790 Blake moved from his house on Poland Street across the Thames to the area known as Lambeth. The Blakes lived in the house for ten years, and the surrounding neighborhood often becomes mythologized in his poetry. Felpham was a "lovely vale," a place of trees and open meadows, but it also contained signs of human cruelty, such as the house for orphans. At his home Blake kept busy not only with his illuminated poetry but also with the daily chore of making money. During the 1790s Blake earned fame as an engraver and was glad to receive numerous commissions.
One story told by Blake's friend Thomas Butts shows how much the Blakes enjoyed the pastoral surroundings of Lambeth. At the end of Blake's garden was a small summer house, and coming to call on the Blakes one day Butts was shocked to find the couple stark naked: "Come in!" cried Blake; "it's only Adam and Eve you know!" The Blakes were reciting passages from Paradise Lost, apparently "in character."
Sexual freedom is addressed in Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), also written during the Lambeth period. Oothoon, the "soft soul of America," expresses her unrestricted love for Theotormon who cannot accept such love because he is limited by jealousy and possessiveness. In the poem Oothoon is raped by Bromion, and the enraged Theotormon binds the two together. The frontispiece to the book shows Bromion and Oothoon back-to-back with their arms bound together while Theotormon, hunched over, stares at the ground. The relationship between Bromion and Oothoon is like that of marriage that is held together only by laws and not by love. In her lament to Theotormon, Oothoon denounces the destruction of a woman's sexual desire:
Till she who burns with youth, and knows no fixed lot, is bound
In spells of law to one she loathes? and must she drag the chain
Of life in weary lust?
The marriage "spells of law" bind a woman to man much like a slave is bound to a master, and marriage can become, in Mary Wollstonecraft's phrase, a form of "legalized prostitution."
Oothoon calls for the freedom of desire: "Open to joy and to delight where ever beauty appears" and even promises to provide women for Theotormon to enjoy "in lovely copulation," but Theotormon, bound by law and custom, cannot accept such love.
In 1793-1795 Blake produced a remarkable collection of illuminated works that have come to be known as the "Minor Prophecies." In Europe (1794), The First Book of Urizen (1794), The Book of Los (1795), The Song of Los (1795), and The Book of Ahania (1795) Blake develops the major outlines of his universal mythology. In these poems Blake examines the fall of man. In Blake's mythology man and God were once united, but man separated himself from God and became weaker and weaker as he became further divided. Throughout the poems Blake writes of the destructive aspects of this separation into warring identities.
The narrative of the universal mythology is interwoven with the historical events of Blake's own time. The execution of King Louis XVI in 1793 led to an inevitable reaction, and England soon declared war on France. England's participation in the war against France and its attempt to quell the revolutionary spirit is addressed in Europe . In Blake's poem liberty is repressed in England after it declares war on France:
Over the windows Thou shalt not; & over the chimneys
Fear is written
With bands of iron round their necks fasten'd into
the walls of citizens
The very force of that repression, however, will cause its opposite to appear in the revolutionary figure of Orc: "And in the vineyards of reds France appear'd the light of his fury." Orc promises fire and destruction, but he also wars against the forces of repression.
Blake's minor prophecies are, of course, much more than political commentaries. In these poems Blake analyzes the universal forces at work when repression and revolution clash. Erdman has pointed out the historical parallel in Europe between Rintrah and William Pitt, the English Prime Minister who led his country into war against France. Yet in the same poem we see references to repression from the time of Christ to the Last Judgement. Blake saw English repression of the French Revolution as but one moment in the stream of history.
The causes of that repression are examined in The First Book of Urizen. The word Urizen suggests "your reason" and also "horizon." He represents that part of the mind that constantly defines and limits human thought and action. In the frontispiece to the poem he is pictured as an aged man hunched over a massive book writing with both hands in other books. Behind him stand the tablets of the ten commandments, and Urizen is surely writing other "thou shalt nots" for others to follow. His twisted anatomical position shows the perversity of what should be the "human form divine."
The poem traces the birth of Urizen as a separate part of the human mind. He broods upon himself and comes to insist on laws for all to follow:
"One command, one joy, one desire
One curse, one weight, one measure,
One King, one God, one Law."
Urizen's repressive laws bring only further chaos and destruction. Like Milton's hell, Urizen's world is filled with the contradictions of darkness and fire: "no light from the fires." The lawgiver can only produce destruction, not understanding. Appalled by the chaos he himself created, Urizen fashions a world apart.
The process of separation continues as the character of Los is divided from Urizen. Los, the "Eternal Prophet," represents another power of the human mind. Los forges the creative aspects of the mind into works of art. Like Urizen he is a limiter, but the limitations he creates are productive and necessary. In the poem Los forms "nets and gins" to bring an end to Urizen's continual chaotic separation.
Los is horrified by the figure of the bound Urizen and is separated by his pity, "for Pity divides the Soul." Los undergoes a separation into a male and female form. His female form is called Enitharmon, and her creation is viewed with horror:
Eternity shudder'd when they saw
Man begetting his likeness
On his own divided image.
This separation into separate sexual identities is yet another sign of man's fall. The "Eternals" contain both male and female forms within themselves, but man is divided and weak.
Enitharmon gives birth to the fiery Orc, whose violent birth gives some hope for radical change in a fallen world, but Orc is bound in chains by Los, now a victim of jealousy. Enitharmon bears an "enormous race," but it is a race of men and women who are weak and divided and who have lost sight of eternity.
Urizen explores the fallen world, spreading his "Net of Religion" over the cities of men:
And their children wept, & built
Tombs in the desolate places,
And form'd laws of prudence, and call'd them
The eternal laws of God.
In his fallen state man has limited senses and fails to perceive the infinite. Divided from God and caught by the narrow traps of religion, he sees God only as a crude lawgiver who must be obeyed.
The Book of Los also examines man's fall and the binding of Urizen, but from the perspective of Los whose task it is to place a limit on the chaotic separation begun by Urizen. The decayed world is again one of ignorance where there is "no light from the fires." From this chaos the bare outlines of the human form begin to appear:
Many ages of groans, till there grew
Branchy forms organizing the Human
Into finite inflexible organs.
The human senses are pale imitations of the true senses that allow one to perceive eternity. Urizen's world where man now lives is spoken of as an "illusion" because it masks the spiritual world that is everywhere present.
In The Song of Los, Los sings of the decayed state of man, where the arbitrary laws of Urizen have become institutionalized:
Thus the terrible race of Los & Enitharmon gave
Laws & Religions to the sons of Har, binding them more
And more to Earth, closing and restraining,
Till a Philosophy of five Senses was complete.
Urizen wept & gave it into the hands of Newton & Locke.
The "philosophy of the five senses" espoused by scientists and philosophers argues that the world and the mind are like industrial machines operating by fixed laws but devoid of imagination, creativity, or any spiritual life. Blake condemns this materialistic view of the world espoused in the writings of Newton and Locke.
Although man is in a fallen state, the end of the poem points to the regeneration that is to come:
Orc, raging in European darkness,
Arose like a pillar of fire above the Alps,
Like a serpent of fiery flame!
The coming of Orc is likened not only to the fires of revolution sweeping Europe, but also to the final apocalypse when the "Grave shrieks with delight."
The separation of man is also examined in The Book of Ahania, which Blake later incorporated in Vala, or The Four Zoas. In The Book of Ahania Urizen is further divided into male and female forms. Urizen is repulsed by his feminine shadow that is called Ahania:
He groan'd anguish'd, & called her Sin,
Kissing her and weeping over her;
Then hid her in darkness, in silence,
Jealous, tho' she was invisible.
Blake satirizes the biblical and Miltonic associations of sin and lust. "Ahania" in Blake's poem is only a "sin" in that she is given that name. Urizen, the lawgiver, can not accept the liberating aspects of sexual pleasure. At the end of the poem, Ahania laments the lost pleasures of eternity:
"Where is my golden palace?
Where my ivory bed?
Where the joy of my morning hour?
Where the sons of eternity singing."
The physical pleasures of sexual union are celebrated as an entrance to a spiritual state. The physical union of man and woman is sign of the spiritual union that is to come.
At the same time as he was writing these individual poems that center on aspects of man's fall, Blake was also composing an epic poem on the fall of man into separate identities. Blake originally called the poem Vala and later changed the name to The Four Zoas. He worked on the poem for a number of years but never completed it. It survives in manuscript form with rough designs for illustrations, but it never became one of the "illuminated books."
The Four Zoas is subtitled "The Torments of Love and Jealousy in the Death and Judgement of Albion the Ancient Man," and the poem develops Blake's myth of Albion, who represents both the country of England and the unification of all men. Albion is composed of "Four Mighty Ones": Tharmas, Urthona, Urizen, and Luvah. Originally, in "Eden," these four exist in the unity of "The Universal Brotherhood." At this early time all parts of man lived in perfect harmony, but now they are fallen into warring camps. The poem traces the changes in Albion:
His fall into Division & his Resurrection to Unity:
His fall into the Generation of decay & death, & his
Regeneration by the Resurrection from the dead.
The poem begins with Tharmas and examines the fall of each aspect of man's identity. The poem progresses from disunity toward unity as each Zoa moves toward final unification.
In the apocalyptic "Night the Ninth," the evils of oppression are overturned in the turmoil of the Last Judgment:
The thrones of Kings are shaken, they have lost their robes & crowns
The poor smite their oppressors, they awake up to the harvest.
The final overthrow of all kings and tyrants that earthly revolutions tried but failed to achieve will be accomplished on the last day. The "harvest" imagery is from the Book of Revelations and represents the process of gathering and discarding that marks the progress of man's soul on the last day.
As dead men are rejuvenated, Christ, the "Lamb of God," is brought back to life and sheds the evils of institutionalized religions:
Thus shall the male & female live the life of Eternity,
Because the Lamb of God Creates himself a bride & wife
That we his Children evermore may live in Jerusalem
Which now descendeth out of heaven, a City, yet a Woman
Mother of myriads redeem'd & born in her spiritual palaces,
By a New Spiritual birth Regenerated from Death.
The heavenly City of Jerusalem is the true form of God's church. The earthly city of Jerusalem and the numerous forms of religions are but pale imitations of that true religion where God and the church are joined. In that City man's separate identities are reunited, and man is reunited with God.
Very little of Blake's poetry of the 1790s was known to the general public. His reputation as an artist was mixed. Response to his art ranged from praise to derision, but he did gain some fame as an engraver. He received several commissions, the most important probably being his illustrations to Edward Young's Night Thoughts. In 1795 the publisher and bookseller Richard Edwards commissioned Blake to illustrate the then-famous poems of Young. Blake produced 537 watercolor designs of which 43 were selected for engraving. The first volume of a projected four-volume series was published in 1797. However, the project did not prove financially successful, and no further volumes were published. After the disappointment of that project, Blake's friend and admirer Flaxman commissioned Blake to illustrate the poems of Thomas Gray. Blake painted 116 watercolors and completed the project in 1798. Blake was also aided by his friend Thomas Butts, who commissioned a series of biblical paintings. His commissions did not produce much in the way of income, but Blake never seems to have been discouraged. In 1799 Blake wrote to George Cumberland, "I laugh at Fortune & Go on & on."
Because of his monetary woes, Blake often had to depend on the benevolence of patrons of the arts. This sometimes led to heated exchanges between the independent artist and the wealthy patron. Dr. John Trusler was one such patron whom Blake failed to please. Dr. Trusler was something of a dabbler in a variety of fields. Aside from being a clergyman, he was a student of medicine, a bookseller, and the author of such works as Hogarth Moralized (1768), The Way to be Rich and Respectable (1750?), and
- Length: 1327 words (3.8 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
William Blake was born November 28, 1757, in London, England. He was best known as an English poet, visionary, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognized during his lifetime, Blake's work is today considered important and significant in the history of both poetry and the visual arts. He was voted 38th in a poll of the 100 Greatest Britons organized by the BBC in 2002.
Blake was the third of seven children, who consisted of one girl and six boys, two of whom died in infancy. Blake's father, James, was a hosier. He never attended school, being educated at home by his mother. The Bible was an early and large influence on Blake, and would remain a source of inspiration throughout his life. Blake’s father purchased him antiques and Blake began to engrave Greek drawings. His parents realized regular school was not for him, so they sent him to take drawing classes. He studied subjects that interested him, and he soon began to study and write poetry.
On 4 August 1772, Blake became apprenticed to engraver James Basire of Great Queen Street, for the term of seven years. At the age of 21, he was to become a professional engraver. In 1778, Blake became a student at the Royal Academy in Old Somerset House, near the Strand. While the terms of his study required no payment, he was expected to supply his own materials throughout the six-year period.
In 1782, Blake met John Flaxman, who was to become his patron, and Catherine Boucher, who was to become his wife. During this time, Blake was getting over a relationship that had ended in a refusal of his marriage proposal. Blake married Catherine on August 18 1782 in St. Mary's Church, Battersea. His wife Catherine was illiterate and on her wedding document she signed it with the letter “x.” Blake taught Catherine to read and write and also to engrave
In 1788, at the age of 31, Blake began to try relief etching, a method he used to produce most of his books, paintings, pamphlets and his poems, including his longer 'prophecies' and his masterpiece the "Bible". Blake and Catherine’s marriage lasted until death. They had few arguments including the problem of having children, and Catherine being illiterate.
How to Cite this Page
|Analysis of William Blake's London Essay - Even though there are only sixteen lines is this poem it is packed with the passions and frustrations of a lifetime of suffering. William Blake uses symbolism, allusion, and imagery to paint a vivid picture of the streets of London in the late 1700's and early 1800's. His AB, AB rhyming pattern resembles the narrator’s footsteps as he “wanders through each chartered street.” Each stressed syllable is like a foot hitting the cobblestoned streets. This rhythmically patterned style is used to convey Blake’s dissatisfaction of the social and political changes of the city.... [tags: poetry, william blake]||554 words|
|The Lamb and The Tiger by William Blake Essay - 'The Lamb' and 'The Tiger' by William Blake Write about The Lamb and The Tiger by William Blake. Explain how the poet portrays these creatures and comment on what you consider to be the main ideas and attitudes of the poet. 'All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all.' Cecil Frances Alexander Indeed, God created all creatures great and small, and he could not have created two creatures more different from each other than the lamb and the tiger.... [tags: Poet Poems William Blake]||3185 words|
|William Blake's The Tyger Essay - William Blake's The Tyger In “The Tyger,” William Blake uses meter and rhyme to enhance both the meaning and the rhythm of his piece. The chanting nature is reinforced by frequent end-stop and catalectic endings for the lines. By melding these devices, Blake has managed to create a powerful poem – hidden in the casual style of a nursery rhyme. The meter of “The Tyger” is mostly trochaic tetrameter (four feet per line; stressed-unstressed). Or trochaic three-and-a-half meter, really – Blake uses a catalectic ending (the dropping of the last unstressed syllable) on every trochaic line.... [tags: William Blake Tyger Essays]||835 words|
| Essay on William Blake's The Chimney Sweeper - William Blake's The Chimney Sweeper William Blake's The Chimney Sweeper, written in 1789, tells the story of what happened to many young boys during this time period. Often, boys as young as four and five were sold for the soul purpose of cleaning chimneys because of their small size. These children were exploited and lived a meager existence that was socially acceptable at the time. Blake voices the evils of this acceptance through point of view, symbolism, and his startling irony. Blake expresses his poem in first person, as a young chimney sweeper.... [tags: William Blake Chimney Sweeper Essays]|
:: 1 Works Cited
| William Blake as a Critic of His Time Essay - William Blake as a Critic of His Time Blake took an active role in exposing the corruption taking place in his society. Prime targets of his criticisms were the institutions that remained silent in the faces of injustice. Blake stands agains the institutions that allow human oppression. Three of his poems from Songs of Experience present his views on the matter: "The Chimney Sweeper," "The Garden of Love," and "London." In "The Chimney Sweeper," Blake takes his stand against the the calamities brought upon children by those supposed to protect him.... [tags: William Blake Poems Poetry]|
:: 3 Works Cited
|Comparing William Blake's The Tyger and The Lamb Essay - Comparing William Blake's “The Tyger” and “The Lamb” William Blake is referred to as many things, including poet, engraver, painter and mystic, but he is probably most famous for his poetry. Blake began writing the poems below in about 1790 whilst living in Lambeth, London. His poetry has a wide range of styles but his most famous poems are those from “Songs of Innocence” and Song of Experience”. The two sets of poems are designed to show different states or ways of seeing. They are Blake's way of representing the different ways in which people actually experience the world.... [tags: The Tyger The Lamb William Blake]||1256 words|
|William Blake's Chimney Sweeper Essay - William Blake's Chimney Sweeper In this essay I am going to explore Blake's Chimney Sweeper poems from the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience. During this essay I will cover Blake's life and times and the way chimney sweepers get treated around that time and what Blake attempts to do about it. Blake was born on November 28 in the year 1757. His parents where strict but understanding. Blake's parents realized early in his life that Blake was gifted. He had an extremely active imagination and he often got visions.... [tags: William Blake Songs of Innocence Experience]||1971 words|
|Essay about Appreciation for London by William Blake - Appreciation for London by William Blake The first stanza of the poem London opens with the image of Blake as he wanders “thro' each charter'd street”. Blake selected the word “charter'd” to convey various images in the readers mind. The immediate image the audience will visualize is that the streets of London were mapped out. However, on further examination the reader can determine that Blake had another meaning for the word. The word charter is also a document bestowing certain rights on a town or city.... [tags: London William Blake Poems Poetry Essays]||504 words|
|William Blake Essay - William Blake William Blake is one of England’s most famous literary figures. He is remembered and admired for his skill as a painter, engraver, and poet. He was born on Nov. 28, 1757 to a poor Hosier’s family living in or around London. Being of a poor family, Blake received little in the way of comfort or education while growing up. Amazingly, he did not attend school for very long and dropped out shortly after learning to read and write so that he could work in his father’s shop. The life of a hosier however was not the right path for Blake as he exhibited early on a skill for reading and drawing.... [tags: William Blake Essays]||1877 words|
| William Blake Essay - William Blake William Blake was born in 1757 during a time when Romanticism was on the rise. Romantic poets of this day and age, living in England, experienced changes from a wealth-centered aristocracy to a modern industrial nation where power shifted to large-scale employers thus leading to the enlargement of the working class. Although Blake is seen as a very skillful writer his greatest successes were his engravings taught to him by a skilled sculpture. Blake differed from other poets in that he never received a formal education.... [tags: Biography William Blake Papers]|
:: 1 Works Cited
William Blake Visual Arts Marriage Proposal Refusal Infancy Strand Somerset Married Visionary
Around 1800 Blake moved to a cottage at Felpham in Sussex to take up a job for William Hayley, a minor poet. In this cottage Blake wrote Milton: a Poem which was published between 1805 and 1808. On the day of his death, Blake worked on his Dante series. Blake ceased while working and turned to his wife, who was crying by his bedside. Blake is said to have cried, "Stay Kate! Keep just as you are – I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me." Blake was buried five days after his death, at Dissenter's burial ground in Bunhill Fields.
The two poems I chose to study were The Tyger and The Lamb. The first poem was the tyger. The poem starts with the speaker asking a tiger what made it. "What immortal hand or eye/ Could frame they fearful symmetry?" Each line contains questions, all of which refine this first one. From where could the tiger’s eyes have come, and who would have dared to handle that fire? The speaker wonders how, once that horrible heart "began to beat," its creator would have had the courage to continue the job. He compares the creator to a blacksmith. And when the job was done, the speaker wonders, how would the creator have felt? "Did he smile his work to see?" Could this possibly be the same being who made the lamb? The Tyger was a poem based on creation and so was the lamb.
The lamb begins with the question, "Little Lamb, who made thee?” A child asks the lamb about its birth: how it came into life. The speaker attempts a riddle to answer his own question: the lamb was made by one who "calls himself a Lamb," one who resembles in his gentleness both the child and the lamb. The poem ends with the child placing a blessing on the lamb.
In William Blake’s poems The Tyger and The Lamb, Blake contrasts the creation of a peaceful lamb and a firer tiger, by questioning the creator. In each poem, it talks about how things change when you get older, then how things are as a child. It’s questioning as an adult why things have to get hard, compared to a child when you have little to worry about. The Tyger is one of Blake’s famous poems. It’s about an innocence in Blake’s book is characterized by the trustfulness and spiritual resilience of childhood. (Derek Furr, an overview of “The Tyger”, in poetry for students, Gale 1997)
“What he hammer? What the chain in the furnace was thy brain?” (Tyger)
In Blake’s poem the Tyger, it’s all about asking questions. Questions that you are overwhelmed at once and the horror of the natural world. How things as an adult, are hard but you get by, and it only makes things better for you.
Blake’s poem inspired many, because it was a poem of questioning life. He had many other poems that were published as well, before the Tyger. The line “Did he who made the Lamb make Thee?” is the reference to Blake’s poem “The Lamb”, a contrasting poem in which the gentle lamb is identified with Christ.
Another one of Blake’s popular poems is The Lamb. The Lamb is about a young innocent child. The poem is about how in a young child’s life there is no drama, but it conveys a sense of bliss at play with itself. Its questions are just playful, the reason for these questions is to get knowledge of the nature of life.
The merry piper who sings about a lamb is a reference to the poem “the Lamb” and the song he sings is the reality of the Lamb who is also a child. Blake’s poems The Tyger and the Lamb are alike in many ways. The Tyger is asking questions about life, why is it difficult, how some people need to struggle in order to understand life. We need to know that, not everything comes easy for everyone in life. Blake’s poem The Lamb, is talking about a young child. How the young innocent child is wondering about life. The lamb is answering the questions it poses, and the Tyger consists of entirely unanswered questions. The question it asks is ultimate ones, and while the answers are implied in the poem, they can not be answers because the way people interpret the words are different for everyone. The way each question is formed makes it also an answer, but still the answer is formed in the question. Neither is resolved.
When the question of great literature is brought up, so many words begin to flow into my head. In my opinion “Great Literature” could mean many things. I think what makes “great literature” so great is the feelings and emotions you get after reading it, or while writing it. I could read a four thousand page book of literature, it might be a “great” amount of pages, but if I get nothing back, emotionally, I feel like it was pointless. Great literature can take different meanings for every different person; some people’s definition of great literature could be the complete opposite of others. I feel like there is no right and wrong when it comes to this word, its all opinion.
Derek Furr, an overview of “The Tyger”, in poetry for student, Gale, 1997
Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on “the Lamb” poetry for students, vol 12, The Gale Group, 2001
E.D. Hirsch, Jr., an excerpt from innocence and experience an introduction to Blake