William Blake: A Creative and Radical Humanist

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William Blake was a radical humanist who composed his poems and songs during a period of great social commercialism and change. As a philosopher poet, Blake disagreed with reason and empiricism. He was a fierce critic of organised religion and the authoritarian abuse of power.

His collection of poetry, ‘The songs of innocence and experience’, sought to enlighten his contemporaries on his philosophies concerning English society. The first and most poignant of the poems that I have chosen is ‘London’. ‘London’ is a poem that explores the hypocrisy and corruption that was conducted in the busy metropolis of Blake’s time.Whilst many had looked upon London as a shining example of man’s ability to progress within technology and architecture to create a modern society, Blake saw through this guise.

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In his ‘London’, Blake saw the exploitation of children, through prostitution and slave labour, and the blatant hypocritical behaviour amongst those in authority. Repetition of the word ‘chartered’ in the first stanza adheres to the conventional view of London, an opinion of a city that is well mapped out, a city that is at the fore front of design.Yet Blake uses the word ‘chartered’ to a different effect, suggesting that the evil and wrong doings to be found within London were planned and carefully carried out. The poem makes good use of repetition, emphasising the adverb ‘every’ as it refers to the ‘marks of woe’ upon all the civilians faces.

The reiteration of this is serves as a striking contrast against the initial opinion of London as a city of progress. Blake establishes that the people of London are held in ‘mind forg’d manacles’. In this he is referring to the metaphorical shackles that hold every man, woman and child in poverty.Blake begins his critique of authority in the third stanza when he refers to the ‘black’ning church’ and the ‘palace walls’.

Blake had a great loathing of organised religion, believing that priests were greedy and corrupt, turning a blind eye to the evil around them. Therefore, the ‘mind forg’d manacles’ are also symbols of the religious oppression faced by the poor. The biblical reference to ‘plagues’ in the final stanza suggests that Blake considers that the diseases have been brought upon humanity by the hand of God.References to prostitution support this claim, implying Blake considered extra marital sex to be one of the great sins of mankind.

The plagues could be references to venereal disease, which in itself would ‘blight the marriage hearse’. This also supports Blake’s statement from ‘The marriage of heaven and hell’: ‘brothels are made with the bricks of religion. ‘ Blake believed that because the religious leaders were doing nothing to stop the evil around them, they were encouraging evil to occur. By portraying the bustling capital city of England in this negative light, Blake is showing the antithesis to most people’s perceptions of London.

His references to the corrupt nature of the government and particularly the Church, displays the fear and repression faced by the poverty stricken. He further develops this view in the poem ‘The chimney sweeper’ to be found in the songs of experience. It was common practice in the 18th century to employ a child to clean the chimneys of grand houses. Because the chimneys were so small, only the tiniest, youngest of children could squeeze into them, usually ending in premature death.

This slave labour was not only ignored, it was fairly encouraged by figures of authority.Blake begins his poem referring to ‘a little black thing’. The child is barely recognisable. The infancy of the chimney sweep is also shown as it is barely old enough to pronounce it’s words, saying ‘weep, weep’ as opposed to ‘sweep sweep’.

This ironic twist shows Blake using a pun on the word sweep, to demonstrate the child weeping. The poem has an ominous tone. The child is dressed in ‘clothes of death’ alluding to his or her imminent demise. Like the poem, ‘London’, Blake is criticising religion and authority in this poem when he refers to ‘God and his priest and King’.

He suggests they are colluding in their exploitation of children, and that the parents feel is it acceptable for them to treat their offspring in such a way so long as they are religiously observant. ‘The chimney sweeper’ is written like a personal testimony, and therefore would appeal to the reader’s humanistic instincts. It induces a feeling of dismay for the treatment of the child and countless other innocents that were denied a childhood. This poem, like many others throughout the songs of innocence and experience, also has a ‘sister’ poem by the same name in the book of innocence.

The chimney sweep’ from the songs of innocence tells another personal testimony, this time of a character named Tom Darce. He is an example of the suffering felt by many children, and could be the same persona as the child in the songs of experience. It is different to the poem in experience as it explores the possibility of a saviour of innocence. The sweep is consoled by Darce when he is vulnerable and scared of his hair being shorn: ‘the soot cannot spoil your white hair’ and this gives the poem a more positive tone.

However, it is unclear as to whether this feeling is ironic or not.Indeed, the line ‘If you are a good boy’ suggests that if the sweep does as he is told and subjects himself to this life of misery, he will be rewarded in Heaven. Blake clearly does not agree with this viewpoint, and alludes to his opinion that you should not have to suffer in this life and be grateful, simply to be happy in the next. This could also be a reference to his ‘Marriage of heaven and hell’ in which the roles and settings of heaven and hell are reversed.

The final line: ‘so if all do their duty, they need not fear harm’ supports this view, serving as an indictment on the society that allows such atrocities to take place.Perhaps Blake feels that the voice of religion is embodied in this final line, a voice that tries to coerce humanity into doing it’s bidding, at the promise of some great reward in death. Whilst these poems make a good representation of the fear and oppression Blake felt was inflicted upon the victims society, they do not address the question of the brotherhood of man. This issue is better raised in the poems ‘The Divine Image’ and ‘A Divine Image’ respectively in the songs of innocence and the songs of experience.

The Divine Image’ is typical of the poems to be found in the songs of innocence, concerning itself with the positive and Christ-like virtues of humanity. The central doctrine of this poem is one to which Blake was to hold throughout his life, that God has a human form; in other words, that there is nothing in divinity or in creation of which we need to be scared, because the whole of God’s creation is essentially in human shape, and thus, especially in the state of innocence, we must give thanks to God for the safety he has given us.Mercy, pity, peace and love are all divine attributes that have a human form. They are also cardinal virtues for Blake.

In this poem, he claims that these are all of human form; but simultaneously he gives us evidence of this by portraying the emotions themselves as anthropomorphic. Blake is saying that when we entertain and live by these virtues, then we are doing our best to aspire to divinity; God does not dwell in the depth of the Universe but in every day acts of kindness and compassion that links us to each other and to the rest of the sentient universe.By using the examples of ‘heathen, turk or jew’, Blake is suggesting a kind of Christian missionary zeal; that all people, no matter their beliefs or traditions, have a part to play in the manifestation of divinity in every day life, whether those parts are seen as equal or not. Blake’s message is emphasised throughout the poem by using various language techniques such as repetition: ‘Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love’, alliteration: ‘human heart’ and rhyme: ‘all pray in their distress.

.. return their thankfulness’.The Divine Image’ can easily be contrasted against its complimentary poem in the songs of experience, ‘A Divine Image.

‘ Immediately, the use of the indefinite article ‘a’ in the title of the poem sets it apart from ‘The Divine Image’. It ahs a much more pessimistic and bleak feeling to it, typical to the songs of experience. It displays the increasingly negative aspects of the brotherhood of man. The first stanza summarises the perverted version of humanity which is obtained in the world of experience, giving abstract nouns such as ‘cruelty’ and ‘jealousy’ to display the intangibility of the emotions.

The emotions are personified and anthropomorphised (as seen in ‘The Divine Image’) to show how they remain with humanity constantly, and that all evil takes a human form. The second stanza constructs a violent, metallic (‘forg’d iron), sealed version of the world of experience, playing on the image of a forge used to fashion people. The words ‘heart’, ‘face’, ‘form’ and ‘dress’ are referred to again in the second verse, although in the opposite order. This conveys the feeling of disarray and chaos.

The use of the word ‘human’ is also important, as it shows how Blake believed that people in power could change the views of others and the words and meaning of God. He believed this to be true blasphemy. Though we are made in ‘a divine image’, we can be moulded and changed so that we are no longer pure and incorruptible. The views expressed by Blake in both experience and innocence illustrates the dissonance of the two states.

On the one hand, the brotherhood of man could be perceived as an idyllic form of existence, a world in which everyone displays the Christ-like virtues depicted in ‘The Lamb’, for example.In contrast, in experience, Blake is pursuing the idea of humanity being corrupted and impure – a society without morals. Whilst I am sure Blake considered the world imagined in ‘The Divine Image’ as perfection, he also knew that society was far from this. His view of culture in ‘A Divine Image’ more realistically expresses the state of civilisation at the time of his writiing, and serves as a stark contrast, further influencing the feelings of his readers into empathising with the victims of society.

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William Blake: A Creative and Radical Humanist. (2017, Dec 19). Retrieved from


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