Explain how Blake uses imagery, form and language in these poems, and what their content reveals about the times in which they were written and Blake’s beliefs.
Songs of Innocence was published in 1789 and Songs of Experience in 1794 by the Romantic poet and artist William Blake. Within the songs, many are obviously, and some less obviously, paired. In the first collection of poems Blake conveys child-like, innocent view of human life, while the second explores a darker and more experiences perspective on life.
This essay will analyse, compare and contrast two poems by William Blake, called “The Lamb” and “Tyger”. I will be looking at how Blake uses imagery, structure and form to create effects. I will them go on to explore themes to see how representative the techniques used are of Blake’s other work in this section
In the beginning of the 18th century London had a population of just under 600,000. By 1800 this had reached over a million. It was the largest city in the world with perhaps the more diverse population. If encompassed the slums that dominated its eastern reaches, and the obscene wealth of its aristocratic west. It gave home to the beggar, trader and baronet.
Previously London had been a series of communities spread along the Thames al within easy reach of open fields. By the beginning of the 18th century however, London had become a massive urban sprawl. Many housing developments in the East and North were of poor quality so house collapses were common, often killing entire families. Buildings were overcrowded so disease was easily spread. In contrast, the west was built to a higher standard and chains, iron railings and padlocks were increasingly used to segregate the rich from the poor.
The term INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION originally referred to the developments that transformed Great Britain, between 1750 and 1830, from a largely rural population making a living almost entirely from agriculture to a town-centered society engaged increasingly in factory manufacture. The first factories appeared in 1740, concentrating on textile production. From this point on advances in technology happened very quickly; steam engines, railroads and machinery transformed the lives of people in Britain.
This meant that there was mass migration to the cities where wok could be found. Consequently housing became overcrowded and living conditions very poor. Cities gradually expanded to cope with their growing population and took over the surrounding countryside.
The 18th century was a time of much social change and political unrest at home and abroad. In 1776 the American Revolution secured independence from Britain. In France, the working classes were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the aristocracy and the monarchy was finally overthrown in the revolution of 1789. The main drive behind these revolutions was the desire for equality and liberty from oppressive ruling classes. Many people in Britain supported their causes and Britain’s powerful ruling classes became increasingly worried about a similar uprising happening here.
William Blake was born in 1757 in London where he spent most of his life. He was from a working class background. His father was a successful London hosier (maker of stockings and gloves) who encouraged Blake’s artistic talents. He had no formal schooling but he was educated by his mother and taught himself from books, such as The Bible and Paradise Lost. In 1767 he was sent to Henry Pars’ drawing school.
Blake experiences visions throughout his life and these had a profound effect on his work. He saw his first vision aged 10 and believed he saw angels and conversed with biblical and historical figures. Understandably this contributed to the widely held belief that he was mad.
In 1774, Blake was apprenticed for 7 years to the engraver James Basire. Gothic art and architecture influenced him deeply. In 1783 he married Catherine Boucher, the daughter of a market gardener. Blake taught her to draw and paint and she assisted him devoutly. Their marriage was unusual for the time as it was based solely on love.
Blake’s first book of poems, Political Sketched, appeared in 1783 and was followed by Songs of Innocence in 1789. In 1794, Songs of Experience was added to this the two volumes were published together with the subtitle “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”.
Blake lived in relative poverty for the whole of his life. During his lifetime he was generally dismissed as an eccentric with radical ideas for social change. He turned away from Christianity and created his own mythology to explain creation.
Blake is defined as a romantic poet. The romantic poets believe that the imagination was extremely important – more important than rational thought. They believed in freedom of thought and spontaneity of expression. They were against the increasing industrialisation and desired a pastoral ideal. Common themes include remembered childhood, revolution and the natural world.
I will focus firstly on the two poems “The Lamb” from the Songs of Innocence and “Tyger” from the Songs of Experience.
To create the atmosphere and set the tone of the poem, Blake uses various techniques both poetic and language. In “The Lamb” he uses ancient words such as “Vales” in order to create images which are peaceful and positive, archaic language was also used to remind the romantics of the old, pre-industrial days, which they preferred. This enhances the innocence of the poem and helps create the natural mood of the poem.
The tone that Blake sets is gentle and pleasant, which is clear from the beginning of the poem. While the narrator seems to be some sort of child is curious and inquisitive. This is reflected by Blake’s use of imagery and language.
Blake also uses alliteration of the word “thee” in the first two lines of the first stanza to reflect the gentleness of the lamb. Refrain is then used in the last line of the first stanza to keep reminding the reader that a child is speaking and to increase the insistent tone.
In “The Lamb”, which is a poem that explores god, Blake commonly uses simple, mono-syllabic words giving the effect that the poem is narrated by a child, for example he uses words such as “life”, “lamb”, “thee” and “bright”. This reflects on the fact that the poem is situated in the Songs of Innocence book and highlights the content of the poem as it is about the innocence of a lamb and it asks the question of who created this nice and peaceful creature. To give an insistent, childlike tone to the poem, the question of who created the lamb in the first stanza is repeated.
Another way Blake distinguished the two poems were by the use of colour. Blake often used dark colours such as black in the Songs of Experience poems and bright colours such as white in the Songs of Innocence poems. In “The Lamb”, “bright” is used to show purity and the correlation between child and purity. This is used in order to emphasise the fact that the child is the narrator and is also used to compliment the tone of the poem.
In the “Tyger”, Blake’s companion poem to “The Lamb”, Blake explores the question of how God could create a “meek” and “mild” creature like the Lamb and yet still create the wild tiger. Industrial imagery is used by Blake to represent forces that can become negative and destructive; he uses “hammer”, “chain”, “anvil” and “furnace” to show the reference to the industrial revolution. The effect that industrial imagery gives is that it shows the tiger has been crafted in a furnace or factory, and Blake, being a romantic, dislikes the industrial revolution and the tiger. Another interpretation of the industrial fire imagery is that it represents hell on earth and Blake’s view that with the coming of the industrial age, the earth is being destroyed. The fire could also represent cleansing and purification though.
Dark imagery is also used by the poet to represent the negative aspect of life and the industrial ages. One phrase that illustrates that is “forest of the night” which symbolises the wildness of the tiger and contrasting to the pastoral imagery in the lamb. He also uses words which symbolise darkness such as “fearful” and “dread” that creates a sense of doubt in the kindness in God. The doubt is then reinforced by the rhetorical question of “What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry” which is asking why God dared to create this beast.
Once again, Blake does refer to God, yet in a different way. In his poem he asks “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” meaning could God make both the lamb and the tiger? This question makes god seem confusing and leaves it open to analysis.
The confused state reflects Blake’s as well as society’s views on whether the new technology and the industrial age will help London or cause it’s downfall. Blake’s language has become more complex and this reflects the theme of the poem, the person has become more experienced. Furthermore, Blake uses more question marks, which give the impression he is uncertain about God.
Although the poem is a reflection on the industrial revolution, Blake still incorporates natural imagery of “When the stars threw down their spears” which could be a reference to the meteor showers which were occurring at that time. This reminds the reader that even though something can be negative and destructive, there is always a natural side present.
In his Songs of Innocence poems, Blake uses similar form techniques to give his poems a certain effect. In “The Lamb” Blake uses a question and answer stanza style, with the first stanza asking the question and the second stanza answering it. This creates a very simple feel to the poem and is a reflection on the fact the narrator is a child and the poem is written from a child’s perspective. Blake also uses rhyming couplets which creates a nursery rhyme rhythm adding to his desires that his poems should be accessible to all people. The question “who made thee?” is a very child like question, yet still a very philosophical question. The repetition of “Little Lamb who made thee Dost thou know who made thee” in the beginning and end of the first stanza helps create the song-like sound.
The “Tyger” has six quatrains, each with two pairs of rhyming couplets. Each stanza seems to have its own question, all of which come from the first question of “What immortal hand or eye, Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” The speaker is unknown thought in this poem; however Blake could be suggested as the speaker as it is his views which are being expressed.
From a nursery rhyme to a pounding beat is the change as it is now faster and deeper than a nursery rhyme. The beat is a pounding beat, which is suggestive of a hammer or anvil being hit against metal in a factory. Blake creates this powerful rhythm by using techniques such as repetition, alliteration and creates the emphasis on the words using punctuation, in particular exclamation and question marks. This is clear in “Tyger Tyger, burning bright” where the alliteration and repetition stress the emphasis on the words.
The poem is left for interpretation from Blake by not setting a standard tone for the poem, but by rather giving different perspectives of the tiger. The mood changes from the images of “hammer” and “anvil” to the natural images of “water’d heaven” and “stars”. This reason why Blake decides to keep the tone and mood of the poem open is to create uncertainty and confusion in the reader’s mind whether the tiger is a good or bad creation, which highlights his own personal view.
The companion poems in Blake’s Songs of Experience and Songs of Innocence poems contain some similarities and some differences. In Blake’s “Tyger” and “The Lamb” there are some similarities and differences that help define them. In “Tyger”, the theme is to do with society and god. When you grow older, you are less immature and you often get a darker view of society and what is done to London. The theme is based on religion and explores god more complexly and with a modern thought of god. However, in “The Lamb” Blake uses a message that a child who has been brought up in a theist environment would have said. The message is that god exists; God is benevolent and makes all things good and nice in the world.
However, in order to tell apart the differences between the innocence and experience poems, Blake uses contrasting imagery and language. The “Tyger” has dark imagery, such as “deadly” and “night” whereas “The Lamb” uses brighter imagery, such as “bright”. The rhythm is another difference that can be seen; “The Lamb” has a soft and gentle rhythm, much like a nursery rhyme, however the “Tyger” has a more pounding rhythm, much like a factory sound.
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 open’d the coffins & set them all free;” which was Blake trying to express that new life is given to people and that if you follow God’s 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.
The “Chimney Sweeper” consists of three quatrains each with rhyming couplets that make the poem sound more song-like. The speaker is the same young boy we read about in Blake’s Songs of Innocence poem, but now in Songs of Experience he is more mature and has a different view of life. This was one of the ways Blake tried to show his readers how life and growing up in London changed you as a person as you grew up with experience of life and knowledge.
Blake’s work is was very much influenced by 18th century London and is perhaps the foundation of it. Blake portrays how life was for people in 18th century London using his “Chimney Sweeper” poems.
I will now focus on the last two poems “Holy Thursday” one of which is from the Songs of Innocence and the other from Songs of Experience.
In the “Holy Thursday” poem from the Songs of Innocence collection, Blake praises religion, and Christianity. There is clear evidence to religion with Blake using words such as “Angel” and he describes the guardians as “wise guardians” implying that they are saviours and they’ve assured the children of salvation. Blake was trying to show the readers of the poem how the Church and state work together to help the children and make sure they are raised in God. His language in the poem also praises the Church, using a metaphor, for looking after “these flowers of London” as he constantly uses vivid colours of blue, green and red promoting the happiness of the children.
In “Holy Thursday” Blake condemns Christianity and religion by revealing the beadles have an “usurous hand” and he uses pastoral imagery “their fields are bleak & bare” to further criticise the Church. The “usurous hand” could be interpreted as the hand of God, trying to imply that God has giving these children a horrid future or it could be the hand of society that is turning a blind eye to the welfare of the children by exploiting them. Phrases like “eternal winter” create a dark and gloomy atmosphere which shows how the language he uses now is darker. The thorns Blake describes in the poem are another reference to Jesus, and his crown of thorns that he wore which further portray religion in a negative light and compares the suffering of Christ to the suffering of the children.
In Blake’s “Holy Thursday” poem, he uses three quatrains with longer line lengths than his other poems, this could be a reflection of the build up of the hymns from a “hum” to a “harmonious thundering” or the queue of children waiting to be brought into the cathedral. Rhyming couplets are used once again to try and create the nursery rhyme type feel to the poem, yet the pace in this poem gets picked up during the end stanza. The point of view comes from an observer in the crowd, and he is also the narrator. The fact that the narrator is the observer makes the poem seem more realistic as he can see everything that is going on and makes the poem credible to the reader.
The other poem Blake wrote, “Holy Thursday” contains four quatrains each with shorter line lengths than compared to its companion poem in the Songs of Innocence. The speaker in this poem seems to be Blake and this can be seen with the evidence of twisted pastoral imagery and Blake’s unhappiness with the treatment of children in society, “In a rich and fruitful land, Babes reduc’d to misery”. However, Blake has now used an ABAB rhyming scheme, perhaps signalling the fact that this is more of a ballad styled rhythm rather than a song like one. Ballads are often songs that tell a story, often containing refrains and the story would often be about a saga, romance or tragedy. Ballads were more powerful than ordinary poems and they often contained a hidden agenda.
Blake’s “Holy Thursday” companion poems explore two different views of how the Church and state, together, are trying to help the children. In the Songs of Innocence poem, Blake is trying to portray a sense of cleanliness, purity and happiness in the children, which is expressed when he describes the children flowing through the “Thames waters” which is the river that runs through the centre of London, trying to imply the children are at the heart of the city. The message given by Blake is that the “Grey headed beadles” are performing good deeds and are helping the children and that society is working together to help the future of the children.
However, while there are differences in the poem there are clearly similarities. There are still, as in all of his poems, references to the correlation between children and purity as highlighted when Blake writes the children have “innocence faces”.
There is also clear reference to religion as Blake describes heaven in Songs of Experience as “For where-e’er the sun does shine, And where-e’er the rain does fall” which gives us a visual image of heaven and in the Songs of Innocence there is religious imagery such as “angels” and “lambs”
I will now focus finally on one of his most famous poems “London” from the Songs of Experience.
Blake spent most of his life in London he lived and wrote most of his works there. “London” from the Songs of Experience is one of Blake’s best works. It contains some of Blake’s most intricate use of language and gives an insight into what Blake thought of London. The first line, “I wander thro’ each charter’d street” shows Blake descriptive talent as he describes the streets of where he lived, the use of the word charter’d was changed from dirty to give even more depth to the description. Blake’s dislike of commerce in the city is also shown by it. Due to the fact that the poem is written in the Songs of Experience it contains what Blake does not like about the city, which is mainly what many of the poems written by Blake in this book are about. Another example of Blake’s knowledgeable use of repetition to emphasise his point, this can be seen in the second stanza. “In every” is used at the beginning of three of the four lines in this second stanza.
In “London” Blake uses writing and form to emphasize the sense of hearing. He ends the second stanza with the word “hear” then he expands the use of language and form to create an acrostic out of the fourth stanza from the root word which again is “hear”. Blake then uses the word “hear” to end the first line of the final stanza in the poem.
The final stanza has connotations of darkness, illness and death; he uses words like “midnight”, “curse”, “blights”, and “plagues”. The description and creation of the negative atmosphere is enhanced and right and wrong has been highlighted. Blake ends the poem in an oxymoron when he writes “the Marriage hearse”, he describes as a negative by using the word “hearse” which is the vehicle that carries the dead.
In conclusion, Blake’s poems give us a clear picture of Blake’s times, his beliefs on issues such as religion, politics and children and highlight an in-depth insight on his views.