William Blake’s Poetry
William Blake’s poetry addresses a lot of issues. Being a nonconformist, Blake’s poetry radically examines some ideas and feelings which are a result of intense probing into the springs of his own being and character. For instance, Blake wrote against transatlantic slave trade. Blake’s “Little Black Boy” from his Songs of Innocence raises issues about the representation of slaves and the limits of the abolitionists’ sympathy. His black boy accepts hierarchies of colour which the poem’s readership affirms despite their humanitarian feelings:
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child.
But I am black, as if bereav’d of light.
Blackness, rather than having any positive associations, is equated with bereavement in the traditional Christian semiotics of Evangelical abolitionist writing. The boy has imbibed this view of colour from his mother who ascribes their shared blackness to the action of the sun, a kind of degeneration from an original and untarnished white. The poem concludes with a vision of interracial fraternity round the “tent of God” with the black boy shading the white English boy from the searing radiance of God’s love:
I’ll shade him from the heat ill he can bear
To learn in joy upon our father’s knee.
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him, and he will then love me.
The boy has assimilated a Eurocentric view of the world, accepting the Christian notion of a white male father as God, whom he desires to resemble, to “be like him” and be loved by him. Blake’s poem represents a speaker in a state of innocence and the poem may function, as other poems in the series, as an ironic rebuttal of the hypocritical Christian evangelicalism the poet so despised.
Innocence and Experience are “contrary states of the human soul” as claimed by Blake. Here is a poem “Chimney Sweeper” from the Songs of Innocence.
When my mother died I was very young.
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry, “weep! Weep! Weep! Weep!
So your chimneys I sweep and in soot I sleep
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curl’d like a lamb’s back, was shav’d: so I said
‘Hush, Tom! Never mind it, for when your head’s bare
You know that the soot cannot sport your white hair
And so he was quite, and that very night,
As Tom was a – sleeping, he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them lock’d up in Coffins of Black.
And by came an Angel who had a Bright key,
And he open’d the coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.
This is a poem about injustice and cruelty which bears some resemblance in general tone. It appears to offer a trite and comforting moral, and might be taken for a kind of tract reconciling the poor to their lot. Yet the poem is enough tinged with Blake’s peculiar vision to make such an account seem crude. Blake is really celebrating and romanticizing the indestructibility of the state of innocence, even in the midst of misery.
Next, the chimney sweep in the world of experience.
A little black thing among the snow,
Crying ‘weep!, Weep!’ in notes of woe!
‘Where are thy father and mother? Say?’
‘They are both gone up to the church to pray.
‘Because I was happy upon the health,
‘And smil’d among the winter’s snow,
‘They clothed me in the clothes of death,
‘And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
‘And because I am happy and dance and sing,
‘They think they have done me no injury,
‘And are gone to praise God and his priest and king
‘Who make up a heaven of our misery’.
Here is a directed, dynamic indictment of the society which exploits such cruelty, and the religion which condones it. The orthodox conception of the Jealous God, the legalistic, sterile, negative morality of organized religion, supporter and justifier of the state’s cruel power, all combined to oppress the poor. And perhaps the worst thing about them is their insensitiveness. The child is still in the world of innocence; he can laugh and sing; therefore they persuade themselves they have done him no injury.
William Blake’s Style of Poetry
Blake is perhaps no more subversive of inertly conventional morality than are the majority of significant writers, but with his startling forms and methods he seemed to his contemporaries all the more dangerous. Blake’s insights are often embodied in poetry of great force and beauty; sometimes his visionary narratives and his paradoxes seem confused and are certainly obscure. In his successful poems he is vividly illuminating, and his symbols among them – chains, blossoms, garden, lamb, tiger, trees, churches, the village green, gold, rose, thorns – are wonderfully used in what we cannot but call an expression of wisdom and spiritual health. Most of his poems are a kind of narrative in firm regular rhythm, lines end-stopped, and the statements direct and explicit. He usually relies on the use of couplets and quatrains.
William Blake is arguably a romantic poet. Most of his poems address the societal ills in England during his time. He kicks against slavery, industrialization and religion. His poetry has been critiqued negatively by many critics. Yet, Blake romanticizes most of the things he talks about in his poetry.