How does William Blake use his work to show his disapproval of the society of his time?
William Blake was one of the first romantic poets, writing during the French and American revolutions in 1780 - How does William Blake use his work to show his disapproval of the society of his time? introduction. Romantic poets believe that people should be free to follow their own desires, everyone has a right to pursue and fulfil their desires in order to be happy, that imagination is more important than science and logic, and that childhood is important and should be innocent. Blake was a visionary writer, he talked to God and angels came to him in his dreams and visions. He translates these experiences into his poems. He viewed God as an artist, active and full of passion and love, rather than a scientist. However, Blake disliked institutions such as the Church and formal religion, the government and the royal family.
Blake believed that people should have open marriages and to enjoy sex, possibly with multiple partners, and was also against unions such as marriages. Society and the Church taught people to think that sex was sinful and wrong, whereas Blake believed sex and desire is a connection to God and spirituality. Blake was especially frustrated with the Church, he thought they were controlling people, especially the poor and working classes. These institutions would teach that although people may be poor and unhappy in this life, if they do not rebel they will be able to go to Heaven and be rewarded. This was seen by Blake as a form of brain washing,
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Blake demonstrated his views in his collection of poems called the Songs of Experience and the Songs of Innocence. Children are born into the world of innocence, where they are allowed to be free and happy, and are also protected from the world of experience for as long as possible by adults. Blake would have hoped that adults would enter the world of experience but someday return to innocence, and protect the children. The world of experience to Blake and other romantic writers was inevitable yet a harsh, cruel and unhappy place full of restrictions and frustration. Blake suggests in his poems that people and children are not in control of their own lives, they are not allowed to think for themselves and are restricted by a corrupt, uncaring Church and monarchy.
In this essay I will discuss how William Blake objected to the poverty suffered by most of the society, neglect by the government and how children were used and not allowed a childhood. I will also look at religion’s disapproval of sex and its agreement with the state to keep the poor, ‘poor’, for their own moral good.
There are two ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ poems, one in the Songs of Experience and one in Innocence. The boy in the songs of innocence has maintained his innocence despite experiencing the death of his mother and his father selling him at such a young age. In this first stanza, Blake uses end rhyme for ‘young’ and ‘tongue’ to indicate how young this child is to be sold and not have a family to protect him.
”weep!’ ‘weep!’ ‘weep!’ ‘weep!”
is repeated and followed by exclamation marks to emphasise how awful that ‘weep!’ is the first thing this child says, when babies are supposedly born into pure innocence and should be happy.
‘So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.’ ,
Ends in a full stop and indicates that this child is doomed to be unhappy, he has been brain washed into accepting his situation and does not aspire to be anything other than a chimney sweeper, and believes he can only be happy in death.
In the second stanza, when Tom Darce’s head is shaved, the narrating boy is positive and practical in saying that at least the soot will not spoil his hair. Blake uses run on lines to reinforce the youth of these children, and their vulnerability with the line
‘ “Hush, Tom! Never mind it, for when your head’s bare
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”‘.
Without realising, the boy is helping to brain wash Tom by telling him to accept the situation. Tom’s hair was white and with the soot had become black, symbolic of the end of innocence.
Blake believed that in dreams and in our imaginations, we are truly free. However, this boy dreams of angels. Blake is showing how deeply brain washed by the Church this child must be for dreaming of angels and still believing that if
‘he’d be a good boy, He’d have God for his father, and never want joy.’
These chimney sweepers are so desperately unhappy, they are looking forward to their deaths in order for them to be free and happy. Blake is also criticising the God and angels in this poem for being too passive in the lives of these young, unhappy children.
Symbolic words such as ‘bright key’, ‘free’, ‘green’, ‘leaping, laughing, they run’, ‘lamb’s back’ and ‘joy’ are all associated with the world of innocence, however there are also words such as ‘soot’ and ‘coffins of black’ showing that these children are surrounded by the harsh world of experience and corruption with no protection. To Blake, the colours black and grey were the colours for the world of experience and unhappiness, whereas white and green were for the world of innocence. As the children dream of running ‘down a green plain’, it shows the children dream in the world of innocence.
The chimney sweeper in the world of experience does not even dream in innocence, he wears ‘clothes of death’.
Although this child has parents, they have left him to go to the church to pray. It is as though he has no parents, like the boy in the songs of innocence. Blake is showing that the parents have also been corrupted by the Church, and are helping to brain wash their child. Blake also explicitly demonstrates his views on the monarchy and the church in the last two lines,
‘And are gone to praise God and His Priest and King,
Who make up a Heaven of our misery.’
The full stop at the end of the sentence finalises the poem’s message that the child, along with his parents and church goers, are doomed to be unhappy whilst the Church and monarchy continue to restrict and control.
The young boy in the world of experience appears no hope of return to innocence. Unlike the boy in the songs of innocence, this child cannot even dream in the world of innocence. Blake is showing the boy is so restricted that not even in his dreams is he able to be free. In the first poem, the boy uses ‘I’ , whereas this child is described as ‘a little black thing’. This is showing that the child is not aware of its own identity, it has been so exposed to the world of experience. ‘a little black thing’ also shows that he has been corrupted, the colour black being a negative colour in the world of experience.
‘Thing’ suggests that the child is of no importance to anyone, the child is weaker and more vulnerable. He has no protection from parents or even other chimney sweepers as companions and support. He is totally alone in a world where no one, including the church, will help him. ‘Snow’ and ‘woe’ are used as end rhyme twice in the poem, emphasising that although the snow is white, a pure colour, it is cold and cannot offer warmth, linking it to ‘woe’ where the child is constantly unhappy and full of sorrow.
These poems are paired together, and show the contrast between a child in the world of innocence and that of a child in experience. Although the child in the songs of innocence is not happy, there is hope. He is at least happy in his innocence, however we sense that the boy’s circumstances are so bad that he may grow up and have to enter the world of experience.
‘Infant Joy’ and ‘Infant Sorrow’ are two more poems sharing the theme of childhood. I think that Infant Joy is Blake’s idea of the most pure form of innocence. The baby is ‘but two days old’, and has not even been named. An adult talking to the child is trying to find a name, however the baby is protesting as it is happy with no label, it is unmarked by adults and the world of experience. ‘I happy am’ shows the pure state of happiness the baby has been born into and has been able to keep. The adult is trying to gain control and have power by trying to find a name, and the use of question marks shows the adult is attempting to penetrate the baby’s stubbornness. It appears baby is trying to teach the adult, who is clearly in the world of experience, that it is as happy as it can be without a name.
The use of exclamation marks shows that the adult is in awe of the baby, and can see how wonderfully happy the infant is. The adult hopes the infant is able to stay in innocence, however the tight, neat stanzas show the inevitability of this infant reaching the world of experience. Symbolic words such as ‘sweet’, ‘Joy’ and ‘happy’ are used frequently to reinforce the infant’s happiness in being innocent. The adult then taints the infant by naming it ‘Joy’. However there are no full stops that would suggest doom for this child, the poem ends instead with an exclamation mark to show the awe and excitement of the adult at seeing such a happy, free infant.
Infant Sorrow is about an infant born into the world of experience. By beginning with
‘My mother groaned, my father wept’,
the child is clearly not born into a happy marriage that is likely to be nurturing and protective of the new infant. Blake had strong views against marriages. In the society of his time women married for support, status and money, and less frequently for love. Blake believed that women prostituted themselves by marrying and not loving their husband. If children were then born into the family they would also be unhappy.
To Blake, marriage was the end of desire, sex and freedom. Infant sorrow is an example of this, as the parents do not seem happy or overjoyed with having a new baby, it is as though the infant is not wanted. ‘Into the dangerous world I leapt;’ indicates the child at least has some energy and resilience, the semi colon used as a short pause after the outburst of energy and life from the infant. The infant struggles before giving up ‘to sulk upon my mother’s breast.’ The full stop is the barrier, the infant is stuck in the world of experience and although ‘striving against my swaddling-bands’, the fight ends when he is no longer free and naked.
‘The Echoing Green’ shows the environment Blake would like for all children to grow up in, where they are protected for as long as possible by ‘old folk’, adults that have been able to return to innocence. One of the characters, Old John, has white hair symbolic of purity and innocence, and is laughing. The children are happy with words such as ‘happy’, ‘merry bells’ and ‘cheerful’ describing the green, which is also a symbolic colour of innocence. The language used is simple, showing how uncomplicated innocence can be. The title ‘Echoing Green’ suggests that the greenness surrounds the children, they are protected, and the ‘echoing’ also mimics the church bells ringing to welcome the Spring. The run around all day, playing sports until they are so weary they cannot be merry anymore.
They return to their homes, which are described as nests, safe and protecting the children as the Green darkens. Throughout the poem, there are hints to suggest that as happy as this place is, it cannot last. The sun, present while the children are playing, begins to descend, symbolic of the end of innocence. The sun is like a character, and could also have religious meaning and suggest it is Christ watching the children play. Commas throughout the poem show that everything is happy, the children and adults here are able to pause and observe, as though the day could last forever and they have time to enjoy themselves. The final sentence,
‘And sport no more seen
On the darkening Green’,
Is a run on line, and is emphasised with a full stop, we can see that this is the end of innocence for these children. End rhyme such as ‘descend’ and ‘end’ again reinforce the end of childhood.
Blake strongly believed that the state neglected society by ignoring the widespread poverty and unhappiness. The poem ‘London’, in the songs of experience collection, is one of the main poems expressing Blake’s anger with the society of his time. By using London, the capital of England, Blake is implying the whole country must be as bad as its capital. The pace of the poem matches that of a person walking, and noticing the people of London as they pass. Every single person the narrator passes is marked with ‘marks of weakness, marks of woe’, and words such as ‘cry of every man’ suggest that every person in London is unhappy like this, experience is everywhere, and it is shown in their faces. The word ‘chartered’ is used to show that nothing is free, people are greedy by creating tolls.
There are restrictions throughout London, and within the stanza the commas copy this. The people are ruled by ‘mind-forged manacles’, creating a strong image of the level of brain washing there must be. In the third stanza, Blake refers again to chimney sweepers crying and a ‘blackening church’, showing how the Church has become more and more corrupt, and not caring about the young chimney sweepers.
Blake uses end rhyme to reinforce how the people in London are similar to slaves, for example ‘every man’ and ‘every ban’ is used to illustrate how there are many restrictions preventing people from being happy. It also suggests that sounds in London are unhappy, people ‘sigh’ and the environment is very negative. Blake uses run on lines to copy the unhappiness in London. In the third stanza the run on line
‘And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.’
shows Blake’s anger towards institutions such as the royal family and the Church. He disapproves because whilst they are safe within the palace, soldiers are dying.
London is Blake’s example of experience at its worst, and is paired with the Echoing Green. The two environments are very different and the words used in London are typical of the world of experience. Blake makes a link between marriage and death in the line
‘And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.’
Blake is again showing his disapproval of marriage by implying marriage is like death, once you are married you are no longer free and may as well be dead.
Blake used the poems the Garden of Love, the Blossom and the Sick Rose to express his frustrations with the Church and religion for making sexuality and desire sinful.
The Garden of Love and the Sick Rose are both in the songs of experience. In the first stanza of the Garden of Love, the garden is metaphorical of the character’s sexuality and happiness. A chapel has been built in the centre where the character ‘used to play on the green’. The chapel is religion stopping the person enjoying sex, as soon as the character begins to doubt whether his or her desire is right, that person can no longer return to the green and enjoy sex. The ‘ – ‘ at the end of ‘And saw what I never had seen – ‘ amplifies the horror and shock of suddenly not being able to play on the green. The second stanza quotes on of the Ten Commandments ‘”Thou shalt not”‘ to show that it is the church preventing this person from freely enjoying what he or she would like to do. In the third stanza describes the horror to see that the Garden has changed,
‘And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;’
This creates a strong image of death and the end of enjoying sex in innocence. The final two lines
‘And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.’
Show the change in the character, who will never be innocent again. The binding of the person’s joy with briars indicates the person is ashamed of desire. Brain washing and self policing now restrict the person, and it is the Church’s fault as the black priests patrol the chapel, reinforcing the barriers they have created. The punctuation used indicates the end of innocence, every sentence ends in either a comma, a full stop or semi colon to demonstrate how the world has become like a prison.
The Sick Rose is also about sexuality in the world of experience. Blake was also an artist, and to him a rose would have been metaphorical for a human being, usually a woman, and also associated with purity. The title suggests that this person is called ‘sick’ because she enjoys sex, when women are not supposed to. The first line
‘O Rose, thou art sick!’
is followed by an exclamation mark to copy the disgust felt, either by the woman herself who feels guilty and ashamed, or possibly by another character finding out. The woman knows that what she enjoys is not allowed by the lines
‘The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm.’
The worm is symbolic of brain washing and doubt creeping in, and the storm reflects the turmoil of unnecessary guilt of the woman when she becomes ashamed of herself. The line is followed by a full stop to show the barrier that has been created, probably by the c Church. In the second stanza, the run on line
‘He has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy;’
shows the end of happiness for this character, as she then changes her behaviour which then literally destroys her life and chance for happiness and return to innocence.
The Blossom is paired with the Sick Rose and is about enjoying sexuality in innocence. Blake uses two birds, a sparrow and a robin, to demonstrate how the sparrow is merry because he is having sex, whereas the robin is sobbing and wasting the opportunity. The robin is in the world of experience by sobbing. Blake shows that sex is a natural act by using the two birds, and also with the lines
‘Sees you, swift as arrow,
Seek your cradle narrow,’
The stanzas are tight and show the restrictions of the world of experience for the sobbing robin.
Blake believed that the Church was so corrupt, it brain washed individuals into not questioning fate, God and its authority. The Church would teach catechisms to small children, such as the child in The Lamb. In this poem, the young child has found a lamb and talking to it, and telling the lamb how wonderful God is and how they are both part of God. The little child is confident and asks questions to the lamb,
‘Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?’
In the second stanza, with no response from the lamb, the child continues with
‘Little lamb, I’ll tell thee,
Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:’
The child is brain washing the lamb, having been brain washed himself. He has been taught questions and answers, and knows that God was once a lamb and then a child, but the child no longer questions what he has been taught. He (or she) is happy and safe, and so is still in the world of innocence.
In this poem Blake is challenging the way the Church has brain washed children to not question their fate and to accept unhappiness. The child in the Lamb describes God as
‘He is meek, and He is mild;’
which to Blake is too passive. A God needs to be strong and helpful, the opposite to meek and mild. The language used is simple, and reflective of the world of innocence. For example, ‘delight’ and ‘bright’. This is also end rhyme, to emphasise the child’s delight at talking with the little lamb about his God, and how everyone is a part of him. The child rejoices in his knowledge and is proud of himself on teaching the lamb about his creator.
As a romantic writer, Blake saw God as more of an artist, and in the poem ‘The Tiger’ demonstrates what he believes God to be like. The Tiger is paired with the Lamb, and although it is in the songs of experience, the person is returning to innocence by asking so many questions. These questions, such as
‘In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What hand dare seize the fire?’
challenge God. In this poem, Blake is marvelling what kind of God could make such a beautiful, deadly creature. Blake is showing that if God can make something as gentle as a lamb, and then makes a killing machine such as a Tiger, He must be dangerous. Blake is also portraying God as a workman or blacksmith, with the line
‘In what furnace was thy brain?’.
The God in this poem, despite not answering the questions, is clearly more of an artist. He is strong and powerful, the opposite to a lamb. The use of exclamation marks throughout indicates the awe and wonder felt by the person asking the questions. The pace is fast, and is almost predatory, similar to the movement of a tiger. The pace also reflects the thoughts processes of the person asking the questions, there is a sense of excitement and the images created are vivid. Run on lines are used in the first stanza, and also in the last as the first stanza is repeated at the end of the poem to reinforce the magnificence of such a beautiful creature and its creator.
‘Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?’
The combination of end rhyme for ‘bright’ and ‘night’ and also the run on line for that sentence create a strong image of the Tiger prowling through a forest, and is clearly visible in the night. The second line rhymes ‘eye’ and ‘symmetry’ to suggest that God must be physically perfect and immortal to create such a beautiful, strong creature.
In conclusion, Blake has used his collection of poems to demonstrate many of his views on the society of his era, including his disapproval of institutions such as the church, the government and royal family, his ideas on marriage and sexuality, the neglect of the poor, and also the way the church brainwash people to control them so that they do not question anything.