William Blake’s Songs of Experience makes heavy use of religious symbols while overtly telling of everyday life events. Two particularly compelling poems are “My Pretty ROSE TREE” and “THE LILLY”. “My Pretty ROSE TREE” offers the overt meaning of jealousy; it is the tale of an envious woman. “THE LILLY” offers a more positive overt message, which exults the value in a life of love and beauty. Both of Blake’s poems integrate symbols that are common to Christianity, but their meaning within these poems breaks from their common context thereby offering Blake’s differing opinions on religion, and imparting new values in the process. Furthermore, the location of the poems on the page accentuates Blake’s values. In order to provide these views in context, two other “radical” thinkers will be presented following the analysis of Blake. Thomas Paine, a contemporary of Blake’s, and Orestes Brownson, an intellectual active at the end of Blake’s life and onward will provide a background to which Blake can be compared. Both Paine and Brownson spoke out in favor of certain individual rights, and both had interesting views on religion, especially for their time periods. Through this context, I will show the unique nature of both Blake’s views and how he expressed them.
“My Pretty ROSE TREE” is obviously the story of a jealous woman. Flowers are common symbols for women and femininity and the allusion is not at all disguised (Holm 21). Blake writes, “I’ve a Pretty Rose-tree… but my Rose turnd away with jealousy: And her thorns were my only delight,” (Blake 464). Thus, Blake is rebuffed by a love interest due to the attraction of another “flower”. That meaning is obvious. The rose as a common symbol of Christianity is also immediately present. In Christianity, the rose and thorns represent a variety of different figures and situations based on the context in which they appear. Thorns are oft associated with martyrdom due to the placement of a crown of thorns on Jesus’s head during his crucifixion with the original intention of mocking Christ (“Matthew 27:29…”). The rose flower itself is often a symbol of beauty and virtue (Koehler).
This rich history of symbolism as it relates to the rose makes Blake’s use of it compelling. After admitting the obvious something subtler appears. Given that the rose typically represents virtue, and in this case the rose “turnd away,” and “her thorns were my only delight,” then the poem takes on a new meaning (Blake 464). If Blake ascribed the typical symbolic meaning of virtue to the rose, then the rose tree would not turn away, but embrace that person which desires to “tend her by day and night,” (Blake). However, in the case of Blake’s pretty rose tree, she is prone to jealousy a synonym for envy, a sin which is, “the rottenness of the bones,” (“Proverbs 14:30…”). If Blake’s rose tree embodied typical Christian values it would not be prone to sin such as envy, and thus breaks from the traditional meaning.
“THE LILLY” is a poem that exhibits Blake’s views on love, specifically as it relates to sex. Again Blake uses flowers as a symbol. The rose reappears in a more conservative role along with another feminine symbol, a lamb [sheep]. He writes, “The modest Rose puts forth a thorn: the humble Sheep, a threatening horn,” (Blake 464). In this case, the rose and the sheep represent women practicing the traditional, chaste Christian life turning away from love and sex. This is clarified when Blake continues, “the Lilly white, shall in love delight, Nor a thorn nor threat stain her beauty bright” (Blake). Obviously the Lilly delights in love where others do not. Much like “My Pretty ROSE TREE” the symbols utilized in the poem make it quite impactful. The lily flower, in typical Christian theology, is a symbol of chastity, virginity, and purity (Scaff 111). Lilies often appear alongside depictions of Mary or the Angel Gabriel (Morris 147). However, chastity is gone from Blake’s Lilly. Blake’s Lilly embraces love, delights in it, and is not wilted by that “sin”. Instead she remains bright and beautiful! Clearly, Blake’s Lilly breaks from typical Christian symbols exactly like the rose present in “My Pretty ROSE TREE”.
Blake’s movement from typical Christian ideology and symbols brings into question the true intent of his poetry. Blake was a strong believer in Mystical Christianity, and that presents itself strongly in his poetry (McQuail 121). The use of typical Christian symbols in new ways, in strange ways, exemplifies this religious philosophy. An allusion to Lilly Crucifixions is also a possibility. Such crucifixions are those that depict Christ crucified on a Lilly. They date back to medieval Christianity and “combine… mystical ideas relating to Incarnation, the Virgin’s purity, the sacrifice of Christ… and man’s redemption,” (Edwards 43). Although the ideology is similar and contains a number of parallels, it is unlikely that this is the reasoning behind Blake’s poems given the Lilly Crucifixions obscurity.
Blake’s misuse of Christian symbols is more clearly explained when looking at his views as represented by the rest of his work. As exemplified by poems like “The Chimney Sweeper”, Blake clearly is speaking out against the mistreatment of certain people based on societal standards imparted by religion and societal structure. This viewpoint helps to explain “THE LILLY”. Its message encouraging love did not support promiscuity, but instead is merely representation of another “victim” in society (McQuail 122). It is a call to move away from the harsh sexual repression present in society, much like the rose breaking from its traditional role or the Lilly embracing love.
In addition to the symbols and poetry itself, the situation of the poems on the page also plays a part in bringing further meaning to the poems. “My PRETTY ROSE”, “AH! SUN-FLOWER”, and “THE LILLY” appear in that order from top to bottom on a single page. “AH! SUN-FLOWER” contains a similar message to the “THE LILLY” in speaking out against sexual repression (McQuail). Therefore the page becomes a flyer speaking out against traditional Christian values, pushing the viewer to break away [“My PRETTY ROSE”], and stop sexual repression [“AH! SUN-FLOWER” and “THE LILLY”]. Blake emphasizes the unity of the three poems by capitalizing nearly every letter in the three titles.
In contrast to Blake, both Thomas Paine and Orestes Brownson were intellectuals that were more forward in their views both politically and religiously. Blake’s subversive views were obfuscated through symbols and prose, whereas Paine and Brownson were prolific writers, publishing the bulk of their work in pamphlets, articles, and other written forms (BRO 002). Paine began as an outspoken advocate for the American Revolution and individual rights, but in later years moved on to more controversial topics by publishing The Age of Reason, a work chronicling his break from traditional Christianity, and instilling unrest throughout the world for a short period of time due to his support of deism (Paine chpt 1). Brownson also has interesting views on Christianity. He originally converted from Presbyterianism to Universalism in the 1820s, because he felt certain ideas relating to sin and predestination were too strict (Schlesinger 10). Later in life, he converted to Catholicism and became an outspoken advocate for the religion, going as far to publish a regular journal supporting Catholicism as a means of achieving the most successful state (Lewis 186). Thus, Paine stands on similar grounds to Blake, whereas Brownson sits at the opposite end of the religious spectrum.
All three individuals were considered “radical” for their time. Blake considered so for his mystic Christianity, Paine for his deism, and Brownson for his ever changing, but zealous religious fervor. All three pushed for different individual rights and economic equalities. Paine wrote The Rights of Man, and Brownson pushed for economic reforms in his work The Laboring Class (Paine, Rights…) (Brownson 226). Blake, as noted previously advocated for a change in the social and economic system in order to create a freer, more open society, especially as it relates to child labor, and sexual relations between adults. It is inconsequential for the sake of this paper to try and rate the “licentiousness” of each person’s work, as they are all pretty “radical” in their own ways. However, Blake’s work stands apart for its use of imagery in addition to words. Furthermore, the use of prosaic language, rather than the argumentative language commonly found in the works of Paine and Brownson further stratifies Blake’s work. His art certainly does not stand alone in presenting a deeper political and religious message, but certainly stands apart for the complexity and depth of that message contained within an artistic endeavor of the time. The use of symbols is particularly important, because it not only deals with the objective meanings of the symbols, but their emotional and moral meanings as well, something none of Brownson’s or Paine’s works can directly compete with. In this way, Blake’s work, although complex and sometimes unclear, contains a greater power through its use of not only language, but the recycling of old symbols in new ways in a concise format.
Blake used traditional Christian symbols in uncommon ways, ascribing atypical meanings to the rose and the lily in “My PRETTY ROSE” and “THE LILLY” to not only break away from Christian values, but also impart new values moving away from sexual repression. In addition to the poetry, the placement of the three poems on the page: “My PRETTY ROSE”, “AH! SUN-FLOWER”, and “THE LILLY” combine to further emphasize Blake’s wishes for society. Overall, this translates to a complex work consisting of both prosaic language and traditional symbols in uncommon uses to create a message that is unique in its presentation and power, especially when compared to other similar intellectuals of the time such as Thomas Paine and Orestes Brownson. The comparison to Brownson and Paine also provides a backdrop on which to view Blake’s mystical Christianity, a feature that is unique to the time and not to be understated. At the same time, Paine and Brownson exhibit the reality that uncommon religious views were present among intellectuals, and did occur despite the religious pressures of the time. Thus, Blake’s poems in Songs of Experience stand as an exemplary work of activism through art, dissimilar to other notable intellectuals of the time period.
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