A major target of Blake’s in the conquest to correct the unnatural state of society was that of religion and the Church. Blake was an unconventional Christian. Although clearly religious, as seen in poems such as ‘The Lamb’ and ‘Night’, he abhorred the concept of organised religion and believed it to be an extremely damaging institution which was more concerned with the oppression of the lower classes and the continuance of the unequal status quo than with true religion. Blake believed the moral codes that were extolled by the Church were significantly damaging to society, making innocent concepts deviant and causing bitter unhappiness. In ‘The Garden of Love’, Blake conveys his feelings on the repressive qualities of religion. This poem is the basis for Blake’s theory on repressive religion, using ‘The Garden of Love’ as a basis for the damaging effects of religious ‘bans’, Blake then goes onto portray how the effects change with different experiences such as love and sex. In the poem, the speaker returns to ‘The Garden of Love’ where he used to ‘play’ (which seems to refer to the innocent discovery of sexuality by children) and finds that it has been transformed. Where once children used to ‘play on the green’ there are now ‘priests in black gowns’, and ‘gravestones’ where there used to be ‘flowers’.
The speaker has become aware of Church law and its oppressive ‘bans’, Blake emphasises the influence of the religious morals by use of metrical technique. The power of ‘Thou shalt not’ paralyses the poem, with three successive stresses halting the regularly anapaestic rhythm. In the same way that ‘Thou shalt not’ stops the flow of the poem, the construction of the Chapel stops the innocent ‘play’ of children. In the design which accompanies the poem children are seen praying over the graves of ‘Joys & Desires’, which were murdered by the Church. Blake further expands his theory on how repressive religion alienates people of his day from their natural selves in his two poems on sexual intercourse, ‘The Blossom’ and ‘The Sick Rose’. ‘The Blossom’ is a celebration of what Blake would call completely natural sex, being free from morals and repressive religion it is a wonderful and joyous occasion, so full of emotion that it makes the robin sob with joy. ‘The Blossom’ is full of positive language, such as ‘happy’, ‘merry’ and ‘pretty’ and contains a simple and bouncing rhythm that conveys the naturalness of the act and how positive such sex is.
‘The Sick Rose’ on the other hand portrays sexual intercourse at its most depraved and shameful. The poem is a vision of sex under the influence of repressive religious morals and restricting social conventions; it portrays sexual intercourse under the influence of repressive religious morals. The poem utilises a complicated and lumpy rhythm, with a mix of anapaestic and iambic feet and a disturbing first line which is difficult to scan, the world of ‘Experience’ is clearly evoked through Blake’s metrical technique. The poem’s imagery of an ‘invisible worm’ ‘flying at night’ in a ‘howling storm’ is full of darkness, violence and depravity. The Rose hides (implied by ‘found out’) her sexual pleasure, her ‘bed of crimson joy’, which reveals the hypocrisy of female pleasure in this depraved form of sex; the Rose has sexual desire but hides it from the ‘invisible worm’. In the final two lines Blake sums up his point of the poem, that this kind of sexual intercourse, this ‘dark secret love’, ‘Does thy life destroy’. Through his portrayal of love and sex in the Songs, Blake shows the damaging effects of religious repression. Repressive religious morals and laws have led to the body becoming detached from the soul, and sex, which the Church associates with the body, has become a seedy and deviant act.
In these poems, Blake has shown that the Church has alienated people from their natural selves. In ‘My Pretty Rose Tree’, Blake reveals his beliefs on the unnatural constraints of marriage. Blake repudiated any kind of binding contracts or morals, which might constrain the natural self from its freedom and marriage fell firmly within his sights. As far as Blake was concerned, marriage was a dead institution (as revealed by the ‘marriage hearse’ of ‘London’) and an unnatural social prison which severely damaged peoples’ natural selves. In the poem, a ‘flower was offered’ to the speaker, a metaphor for an extra-marital affair, by a woman which the speaker finds attractive (‘Such a flower as May never bore’). However, the unnatural constraints of marriage cause the speaker to unhappily, suggested by the slowing of the rhythm with a double stress in ‘And I passed the sweet flower o’er’, turn down the offer and return to his wife, his ‘Pretty Rose tree’. The artificial boundaries of marriage have led to the speaker giving up the chance of being happy with his ‘sweet flower’ and to being trapped with his jealous ‘Rose tree’ whose ‘thorns’ are his ‘only delight’.
Blake suggests that without the constraints of marriage that the speaker would have been free to follow his heart, rather than conforming to an artificial law and becoming unhappy. In ‘London’, Blake further expresses his attitude towards marriage. In the poem, marriage is presented as a ‘hearse’, a vessel for carrying the dead, though with their bodies (their sexual selves) being dead in a loveless and institutionalised marriage which extols the virtues of the soul over the deviant and depraved body. Blake blames the unnatural state of love in society on the Church’s separation of body and soul. The separation has forced the soul to be encapsulated in marriage and the body to be forced to become deviant and turn to ‘youthful Harlots’. Sexual pleasure has only two options, either a loveless marriage or buying pleasure from seedy and diseased prostitutes. Marriage, in Blake’s eyes, has made all sexual pleasure the kind found in ‘The Sick Rose’, depraved and hidden, whereas in a world free from the unnatural constraints alienating people from themselves, people would be able to enjoy the pleasure found in ‘The Blossom’.
Blake is as clear in his views on the damaging effects of political and economic repression as he is on religious repression. A key feature of Blake’s poems is that rather than identifying the symptoms of a problem, he attempts to find the cause (so, for example, charity is an evil in ‘Holy Thursday’ from Experience, but the cause of the evil is inequality). In much of the same vein as ‘Garden of Love’, Blake outlines his view on economic and political repression in one poem and then expands them in further poems. ‘Earth’s Answer’ is a vital poem in understanding Blake’s view on how repressive morals can alienate people from their natural selves. In the poem, Earth is clouded in ‘grey despair’, an abstract rather than concrete barrier, though Earth perceives her despair as a ‘heavy chain’, demonstrating a common technique of Blake’s in which he makes the abstract become concrete. This can be further seen in the ‘mind-forged manacles’ of ‘London’. Earth’s despair is caused by the God of Genesis, the ‘father of men’, whose ‘cruel, selfish, jealous fear’ has created unnatural laws which have bound Earth.
Blake’s so-called Urizenic God has enslaved society (Earth) with his ‘Eternal bane’ that has with ‘bondage bound’ ‘free love’. So Blake has identified the reason for the alienation of people from themselves, the ‘Holy Word’ has constrained and bound people from their natural selves since the Fall. In ‘London’, Blake presents a world wholly under the constraints of economic and political repression. The poem exposes the bitter indignation with which Blake regards society. While walking through the streets of ‘London’ the speaker of the poem views a completely unnatural state; the people are under the influence of ‘mind-forged manacles’, much the same as Earth’s ‘grey despair’, the streets themselves have become ‘charter’d’ and in a symbol of the most unnatural blending of nature and economic and political forces even the Thames is ‘charter’d’. Blake utilises an expert use of language to convey the darkness and despair with which he views ‘London’, in the ‘Marks of weakness, marks of woe’, the ‘midnight streets’, the ‘black’ning Church’ and the ‘blasts’, ‘plagues’ and ‘curse’. Blake creates the image of a world buckling under the weight of oppressive political and economic forces.
The oppression of the people is shown again and again in the poem, the ‘black’ning Church’ is blamed for the ‘Chimney-sweepers cry’ and for ‘every’ repressive ‘ban’, the King is attacked for using the ‘blood’ of ‘hapless Soldiers’ to support his lifestyle in his ‘palace’ and how the unnatural institution of marriage has created the ‘Harlot’ with her damaging ‘curse’. Therefore, in ‘London’, Blake has presented an image of society in which repressive political and economic forces have alienated people from their natural selves, forcing them to become harlots, slave-like chimney sweeps and expendable soldiers. ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ of Experience is another poem in which Blake blames political and economic forces for the unnatural alienation of the sweep from his natural self. The poem’s speaker is outraged to find an impoverished young sweep and seeks someone to blame for his condition. The poem itself is a pitiful tale of oppression, the child has been sold into slavery as a sweep by his parents who have had their guilt absolved by the ‘church’.
This poem is a scathing attack on the organised ‘Church’ and the apparatus in society which are designed to maintain the status quo of oppression, ‘God and His priest and king’. The sweep is certain that the various institutions of society have colluded in a hypocritical lie, they ‘make up’ a heaven where there is only ‘misery’. However, the sweep himself is seen as an apparatus in his alienation from his natural self, he is seen to be ‘happy and dance and sing’ by his parents who see that he is happy and are therefore not guilty. As in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ of Innocence the sweep is completely ignorant of another choice, his choice to not be a sweep, it is simply accepted as his life. The social institutions complicit in his slavery have such a repressive grip on society that their thoughts are constrained in ‘mind-forged manacles’, unable to consider a radically different system. Therefore, the sweep is completely alienated from his natural self, his life is constrained and so is his mind by repressive political and economic forces.