In many of the poems from his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience collections, William Blake writes, at first sight, somewhat simplistically and often in nursery rhymes about life in the 18th century. However, a disturbing picture of poverty, exploitation, hypocrisy and moral decay emerges from the stories of ordinary people and, in particular, children, some of which is hidden and only becomes apparent when we analyse Blakes imagery and language more closely.
William Blake was born in London in 1757 to a poor family. He grew up without a formal education but later studied drawing at a school on the Strand. In the early 1770s, he became a student at the Royal Academy where he studied Arts and then was apprenticed to a famous engraver, James Basire. Even though his engravings were good, he was only moderately successful with his work. However, his English skills were amazing for an autodidact.
Historically, he witnessed many different events such as the Industrial Revolution, French Revolution and American Independence, which in turn influenced him, his writing style and his radical Christian and political views. Indeed, this can be seen in his legacy, and he is constantly referring to the struggles of London and its people during the industrial revolution in his poems.
The Industrial Revolution was the major shift of technological, socioeconomic and cultural conditions in the late 18th and early 19th century that began in Britain and spread throughout the world. During that time, an economy based on manual labour was replaced by one dominated by industry and the manufacture of and with machinery Blake was well aware of the changes around him and saw them as a change for the worse rather than the better. Child labour increased, the population increased, churches promoted the wrong ideals, and Blake was angry and frustrated. He wanted a different kind of change and could not get it, thus he begun working on his poems most of which have a hidden or subliminal message to them.
His first set of poems were published in 1783, entitled Poetical Sketches and was seen by many as an immature set. His second volume of poems were then published in 1789 and were entitled Songs of Innocence. This set contains some of his most famous work and is still read by many. His third set was published in 1793, entitled Songs of Experience, and it includes many poems that have to be seen as the counterparts of those published in 1789, for example the pair The Lamb and The Tyger.
The Lamb is from Songs of Innocence and The Tyger is from Songs of Experience. A lamb symbolises innocence because it is pure and white, a colour which is usually associated with heaven and God. For example the alliterative term meek and he is mild, is used this shows that the lamb is vulnerable. Within this poem there are lots of examples of pastoral imagery and repetition with L in Little Lamb shows that he is only small like a baby and has to rely on someone or something else, lamb can also be linked to Jesus the lamb of God. The l sound is a very soft sound and this is why it can be linked back to vulnerability.
The Tyger in the poem Tyger represents evil and the damage that the industrial revolution was causing at the time. In the very first line of the poem it says burning bright, this represents the fire inside the belly of the industries; the effect of the harsh sounding alliteration of these two words is that it makes the reader feel very fearful at the fact that the industrialisation is becoming stronger and stronger. These two poems are different because they use different symbolisms; The Lamb poem uses symbolism linking to innocence and pastoral imagery of streams and meads in the countryside, whilst The Tyger poem uses symbolisms of a strong and scary creature that symbolises the industrial towns that crush things that get in their way, for example What the hammer? What the chain, In what furnace of thy brain? shows materials that would have been used during the industrial revolution.
These two poems both have different structures as well because The Lamb has two stanzas and The Tyger has five stanzas, the effect that this has is that it makes the Tyger poem seems longer and not as connected as the Lamb poem. These two poems are similar in the way that they both seem to be asking a lot of questions, although The Lamb does not have any question marks you can still make out questions that are asked, for example Dost thou know who made thee.
The Tyger asks a lot more questions and you can pick them out because they are punctuated which makes them stand out more, also a major difference is that the questions in The Lamb are answered, whereas the ones in The Tyger are not and the effect that this creates is one of doubt because you do not know what the answers are. These poems illustrate that during the time that Blake lived there was an industrial revolution and the countryside, the meek and mild lamb was being destroyed by this fearsome Tyger (the industrial revolution)
I will now focus on the two poems The Chimney Sweeper one of which is from the book the Songs of Innocence and the other from the Songs of Experience.
In the Songs of Innocence book the poem called The Chimney Sweeper, explores the life of a young child, a chimney sweeper and also contains pastoral imagery that is similar to those used in The Lamb for example Bright key and wash in a river and shine in the Sun which create an effect of purity and peacefulness in the world.
Similarly to The Lamb, a child is used by the poet in order to establish a sense of innocence with the reader, this can be identified when the narrator says I was very young and the fact that the boy is a chimney sweeper. This effect of a child as a narrator is that it can be used as a sign of innocence.
The mood and tone of the poem is then helped, which evokes sympathy from the reader and reveals how faith is restored into the child through God. The positive mood and tone of the poem is created by help from the pastoral and bright imagery.
In the Chimney Sweeper religion is portrayed in a positive light and Blake shows this through the dream of a chimney sweeper. In the dream, an Angel who had a bright key, And he opend the coffins & set them all free; which was Blake trying to express that new life is given to people and that if you follow Gods rules, you will be happy in your afterlife no matter how miserable your current life is. He also gives more pastoral imagery of a green plain which is less industrial and more natural.
In addition, in The Chimney Sweeper religion is degraded as the narrator, who has had experience now, blames the God & his Priest & King for his misfortunes, as well as his parents. Darker imagery and language is now used by Blake such as little black thing among the snow to describe the children, showing how a once pure and innocent child can be turned into the opposite through experience and society. The narrator then reflects upon how harsh the times were for him as a child by revealing They clothed me in the clothes of death which means he was left for death by his parents.
Religious hypocrisy was one aspect Blake was strongly against, this was the idea that the Church was trying to tell people the right thing to do, but in fact were doing the exact opposite by neglecting the children and imposing fear into people using God.
The Chimney Sweeper has six quatrains but the sentences are shorter in comparison to Holy Thursday. The poem also has rhyming couplets and this continues the song-like rhythm that Blake creates in his Songs of Innocence poems. The speaker is a young boy, a chimney sweeper, and the poem is written from his point of view. By having the young boy as the speaker it allows Blake to evoke pity from the reader and allows Blake to describe how life was for a young chimney sweeper through a first-person perspective.
Similarly to the two sweeper poems, there is another set of poems that carries the same tile, Holy Thursday and, thus refers to the Thursday before Easter, the day of the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with the Apostles. The Holy Thursday included in the Songs of Innocence consists of much longer lines than the other poems and could almost be described as a narrative poem. The tone and rhythm however is similar to all of those previously featured in the Songs of Innocence section like a nursery rhyme.
The first stanza opens positively and cheerfully, with children attending a service, their innocent faces clean. This once again reminds us of the childrens innocence and how they can still get close to God, in particular when Blake later likens them to lambs again. However, we somehow also get an image of happy children who have made an effort to be clean for their church visit and/or whose faces are not stained yet by the loss of innocence, and the colours of their clothes, red & blue & green, also sound cheerful.
However, the colour imagery continues and we soon realise that the children have only been dressed up for church because they are chimney sweeper groups following their Grey- headed beadles. In contrast to the children who are unlikely to even grow up, they have had the chance to grow old. The reference to the colour white in the simile with wands as white as snow is ironic. While white usually stands for innocence, we know that wands are a symbol of oppression and control, and the snow might well represent the coldness of the beadles hearts.
Once again, the children are depersonalised in the simile they like Thames waters flow into the church. There are multitudes and Thousands of them, and there is no room to pay them individual attention. However, Blake also describes them as the flowers of London, perhaps ironically to remind us that we should allow children to bloom and that flowers are usually growing and beautiful, in contrast to the children who will die early. In addition, when the whole experience seems rather regimented because the children have to walk in two & two and sit in companies. It almost is an image of military discipline. It is highly ironic when Blake describes the beadles as the childrens wise guardians, when any wisdom they may have gained is only used to oppress the children and their actions overall show everything but wisdom.
The strength of the childrens voices is shown when Blake describes their voices as a mighty wind they raise to heaven. Metaphorically, wind can blow bad things away, and perhaps the children could change society if given the chance. They certainly seem to have the energy and drive. Blake also uses a biblical reference in the last line of the poem, Then cherish pity, lets you drive an angel from your door. This is a reference to Hebrews 13:2, Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. This powerful quote implies that we must be good to our fellow man as they may have just been sent by God to test us. Thus, the innocent children should of course be treated particularly well.
I will now focus finally on one of his most famous poems London from the Songs of Experience.
The whole of the poem shows William Blakes view of London during the 18th Century, he describes the oppression inflicted on the civilians both by themselves and by others. Blakes attitude to society, as he describes it in his poem London, shows London to be controlled by bureaucratic laws. This is shown by the mentioning of charterd streets, charters were given to people who were richer or more powerful than most and it allowed them to control the streets of London. Blake also mentions the Thames at this point to emphasise the extremity of the control by saying the charterd Thames, obviously it is ridiculous attempt to control the river. Blake puts a large emphasis onto the depair affecting everyone by the repetition of every there is also an exaggeration of of the negative feeling by the repetition of cry.
In the third stanza Blake places some of the responsibility onto the church, the church is metaphorically described as blakening to represent the guilt. There is also a juxtaposition in this line, appalls is exaggerating the blame of the church as well as meaning goes pale which is a juxtaposition with blackening. Blake also connects the chimney-sweeper with the church because they are often in need of the churchs help but are oftened turned away, this is why the blakening church also represents the smoke and soot.
During this time many feared a revolution as one had occured recently in France, it is obvious that Blake also feared a revolution as he mentions the hapless soldiers blood running down the palace walls this shows he believes that if the unhappiness of the soldiers is continually ignored by those running the country a revolution is inevatable. The final stanza concentrates on marriage and new-life, both of which should bring happeness, instead Blake sees new-life as just continueing the cycle of the corruption, and he critisises the reasons for marriage, believing that many marry for convenience rather than marrying for love. Blake also critisises the youthful harlot and uses the word plaugue to suggest STDs which will be contracted and passed on. Blake uses immagery to put across his view, with the main idea being the constraint and lack of freedom for everyone within London.
The poems from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience have more meaning than the reader might first imagine due to mainly the events that were surrounding their author William Blake at the time of their writing. By the harsh reality of London at that time Blake incorporates the Chimney sweeps, Charity schools, London in general and the industrial revolution into his poems. He does not openly state what each poem is about but within in writing we can pick up on ideas and themes that influenced him to write these poems. While reading these poems people pick up on the things happening at the time due to the detail in which they are described in poetry. These poems are not just poems, they are more like Blakes autobiography on his life through the form of media he liked best, poetry.