Reflection of Time and Society in William Blake’s Poems

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Reflection of Time and Society in William Blake's Poems
The Lamb and The Tiger by William Blake

As one of the most outstanding representatives of the Pre-Romanticism poet in the 18th century English literature, William Blake lived through and witnessed an era of great political and social upheaval and transitional period: the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution which brought significant and essential impact on social and historical progress in England. Coming from the social injustices and the coverage of the dark side of industrial England, Blake caught the pulse of his times through his sharp and deep insight, condemned the oppression and exploitation derived from the authority, tyranny and church, and also called on the oppressed to shatter “the mind-forged manacles” come from the ruling class.

Blake lived in the time of the British Industrial Revolution. A time when children were forced to work from a young age and physical punishment was considered normal. It was a time of change. The world was becoming mechanised. Blake didn’t like this.

Blake was a visionary. He felt very strongly about the way the Industrial Revolution was doing more harm than good and should be stopped. He didn’t like the way children were used as workmen because of their size and the way they were discriminated against. Blake expressed all of his views in his poems, and in many he gets quite frustrated, and it shows in his style of writing. Blake followed the ideals of the French revolution. His revolutionary views are expressed in his poem “Jerusalem.” He liked the ideas drawn up by the revolution and wanted, more than anything, for his country to follow the same ideas. However it was not to be. The United Kingdom was in the middle of the industrial revolution and so the idea’s that he believed in so strongly, were never implemented.

William Blake wrote “Songs of Innocence and Experience” throughout his lifetime and he was continually revising it. Blake was educated at home and many of the designs in the book were influenced by his home education. The book shows the two sides of the human soul. Like the yin and the yang. Innocence is represented by the yin and experience by the yang. Right from the beginning of the two sections of the book with the two introductions it is clearly evident which one is which. The introduction to The Book of Innocence talks about the Bible and Jesus. It says “pipe a song about a lamb.” Jesus was the Lamb of God. The themes in the poem are primarily about taming wild ideas. There is a progression from something wild, to something tamed in the poem.

The image of the lamb comes up in the poem as well. In a lot of his poems Blake uses the lamb as an image of experience. In the bible Jesus was the Lamb of God. The innocence in this poem can be compared to U.A. Fanthorpe’s “Half-Past Two”. In the poem the child is innocent as all children are at that age. He doesn’t know how to tell the time and so he must stay in the room not knowing if he would ever leave. The innocence in this poem is represented by the lamb in Blake’s.

If you compare the introduction to The Book of Innocence to the introduction of The Book of Experience you find something completely different. Instead of the innocence of a lamb, you find the someone begging. It is the world. It is begging to be freed from the knowledge it has about humanity. The poem talks of a bard who has seen too much of the world and it is haunting him. Blake could be talking about himself in this poem or someone else. However the person Blake is talking about is begging for the world to stop and repair itself and to break free of the iron shackles of evil of which it is bound. The poem is quite the opposite of its innocence counterpart.

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Use of Animal Imagery in Blake’s Poem – The Tyger and The Lamb

This poem is in The Book of Experience because, going back to the introduction, it shows how the earth wants to forget the things it has witnessed. Therefore it has to belong to experience. Blake has written many “pairs” of poems in Songs of Innocence and Experience, one in ‘Songs of Innocence’ and the other in ‘Songs of Experience’. One of these pairs, both entitled “The Chimney Sweeper”, show how Blake viewed the industrial revolution and how he hated it.The chimney sweeper in The Book of Innocence talks of a boy who has been sold by his parents to work as a chimney sweeper. The innocence in the poem is represented by the boy’s curly white hair. In the second stanza the boy gets it shaved off. At that point, the boy loses his innocence. He knows his fate and so his innocence is lost.

Blake’s first version, The Chimney Sweeper from Songs of Innocence, is a narrative poem spoken by one of the sweepers. In the first four stanzas, the speaker narrates the heart wrenching situation he finds himself in. Adding insult to injury of him being orphaned, he is sold off to a master sweeper where he is to work as a chimney sweeper. Blake uses powerful imagery to illuminate the appalling conditions imposed on the children, a technique that has been deemed necessary by critics.

In the second stanza the narrator explains how he meets a new recruit , little Tom Dacre “….who cried when his head that curl’d like a lambs back was shav’d….”(Blake, innocence , verse 2:5-6). He then optimistically consoles the new comer and reassures him that the shaving of his white hair is done in order to protect it from collecting soot. This show of optimism by the narrator has been termed by critics as ability to find “the silver lining of every cloud” (Essick 1977: 53) further illustrating the innocence of these exploited children who even in light of such dark and hopeless situations, see the good in everything.

The poem also clearly reveals Blake’s opinion of the church and religion at large, which was, according to Blake, part of the system that causes this kind of suffering in the first place. “And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy, /He’d have God for his father & never want joy” and when Tom finally wakes up he seems happy because if they “…all do their duty, they need not fear harm . In this case “being ‘good’ means continuing in Tom’s enforced labours” . The Angel, who represents religion, tries to tone down the degree of the injustice and the oppression of the children making them believe that they are doing their job for the right reasons and will eventually go to heaven if they continue obeying their masters. The pureness and naivety of the children manifests its shortcomings as “the comforting sentiments of innocence will have terrible consequences for these boys” . Religion can also be seen as a form of escapism from accepting responsibility for the ill treatment of children:

“Tom’s dream of a paradisal world in which all suffering and exploitation have disappeared is what gives him the strength to get up in the morning and go to work. The whole poem can be understood as an expression of ‘false consciousness’, as it explores the function of the conventional Christian mythology in keeping the slaves of society in their place”

However, Religion is not the only institution to blame for this injustice, the whole society plays a role in this. This is illustrates in the first stanza where the narrator says “So your chimney I sweep and in soot I sleep.” . By using the word “your” even the reader is included in the blame. Blake “implicates the reader in the circle of exploitation”. Everyone plays a role in child exploitation.

“The Chimney Sweeper” in The Book of Experience is very different to the one in The Book of Innocence. This one talks of another “little black Thing” (a child chimney sweeper) weeping in the snow. His parents have abandoned him to go to church. The last stanza shows the boy’s parents ignorance. They think because the boy dances and sings that it is okay to abandon him. The reason this poem is in The Book of Experience is because the child has been a chimney sweeper for a while. He has accepted his fate and given up. He has become experienced enough to think that all hope is gone but in truth, just like in earth’s answer, all of these ideas are all in the child’s head. All he has to do is realise it.

His second ―The Chimney Sweeper‖ is bitterer and darker; worldlier. Blake sees the chimney-sweeper barefoot and dirty, carrying a big bag of soot, walking under grey rain, with a sad expression on his face. This poem opens with the voice of a narrator, who observes, notes or records and then asks a question to which the chimney-sweeper responds. The response is significant for several reasons. In the first place, it is noticeable that the child chimneysweeper is a living being, but it is referred to as ―A little black thing‖. This is because the child, dressed in his sootcovered black rags, is so insignificantly small that he is no more than a ―black thing‖. Next, in the second line is mentioned the child‘s ―notes of woe‖ – its cries of misery and suffering. And finally there is the last line of the stanza which indicates the institution of the church for not only reflecting small exploited children like the chimneysweepers, but also for directly or indirectly making it possible for parents to forget the plight of their working children. The last two lines of Blake‘s poem indeed sound as a direct note of condemnation :

And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.

―God and his Priest and King‖ make up a kind of triumvirate of Divinity, clerical or Church authority and political and social power that effectively neglects looking often and so destroys the happiness of the little children which is their birthright. Experience, in other words, is the heaven of enjoyment that some build out of others’ misery. The tone of this poem is completely different from that of the one in Songs of Innocence. It shows that the wretched plight of the whole proletariat class is basically a nexus between Church, family and King. Most of the poems in Songs of Innocence have pre-industrial agrarian or pastoral setting, whereas poems of Songs of Experience are set in urban areas. Experience is a mental state of maturity. Whereas in Innocence there is a note of acceptance, in Experience there is a revolt against the evils of society. Blake‘s anti-industrial sensibility anticipates Dickens.

A difference between the two Chimney Sweeper poems should be taken into account. Though the poem from Experience overtly condemns certain social institutions, Blake Slightly conceals his contempt in The Chimney Sweeper from Songs of Innocence, where little Tom Dacre finds strength and gratification in religion. Despite the different endings of both poems, Blake is successful in presenting his audience with different perspectives of viewing the situation. One thing for sure, no matter how contrary the perception of these two poems might be, the plight of children who had to work as chimney sweeper is the key agenda. It is crystal clear what opinion Blake has of the society that ruthlessly exploit and abuse its children instead of protecting them and offering a better future. Moreover, the sheer amount of religious imagery and conflict make it evident that Blake’s primary purpose for writing the text was to expound on his own religious views.

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Comparison of William Blake’s The Tyger and The Lamb

Blake’s “The Lamb” and “The Tyger” is more suggestive to the nature of God. The idea is that the same God who made the lamb also made the tiger, so unless it is suggested that God created evil, then the tiger must not be “evil”. The fact that the same God created both the lamb and tiger suggest that they just represent two different sides of God: Two different aspects of existence. Blake’s perception of good and evil isn’t just one extreme to the other, instead, the ambiguity of evil isn’t evil; it is just the other side of good. Blake technically didn’t believe in a dichotomy, the division into two usually contradictory parts or opinions. Blake portrays his argument that a human being cannot be completely good or completely evil. This trait does not exist within human beings, and therefore does not exist in God. The other writers and minds of the 18th century were mainly deists, the belief based solely on reason. They did not show interest in the nature of God as Blake did, instead, reason was their god.

Even as Blake worked upon the poem, the revolutionaries in France were branded in the image of a ravening beast – after the Paris massacres of 1792, an English statesman declared, “One might as well think of establishing a republic of tigers in some forest of Africa” and there were newspaper references to the “tribunal of tigers”. At a later date, Marat’s eyes were said to resemble “those of the tyger cat”. Many critics have also read the poem as a response to the progress of industrialisation so rampant at this time. Along with fire, which stands for human civilisation and industry, the next two stanzas speak of the creation of the tiger as a divine industry :

And what shoulder, and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? And what dread feet?

Although Blake hated the Industrial Revolution he still had hope. This hope comes in the form of a poem he wrote called Jerusalem. Although he believed in and followed the ideals of the French revolution, this poem shows how there is still hope. Although not in Songs of Innocence and Experience, Jerusalem shows how Blake hated the industrial revolution and how the ideals of the French revolution should be the way to live. In the poem, Blake used the Legend that Mary Magdalene came to England. Jerusalem represents Blake’s good side. He uses Jerusalem as a place of sanctuary and a place of good. The last three lines “Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.” By saying this Blake is condemning the Industrial Revolution and saying that he will always be angry, and will always fight until the horrors of the revolution stop and until England has been cleansed of treachery. Jerusalem represents the Promised Land. Blake has done this to show that although he believes the industrial revolution is bad, there is still hope for the world.

William Blake wrote many poems in his book Songs of Innocence and Experience all of which represent a hatred of the Industrial Revolution or a support of the French revolution ideals. He was a very controversial poet in the 17th and 18th century but now his poems can be considered as masterpieces. They are like little wedges of insight into his life and the Industrial Revolution, and his poems will be remembered as he will be for a long time.

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