Blake’s Disjunctive Work and His Political Views
There a many alternative ways to protest or question actions of the government other than having protests; one happens to be through poetry. William Blake grew up during a time of change and development in Europe. This influenced many works he completed including Poetical Sketches completed in 1783 and America, a Prophecy completed in 1793. While his previous works are more straight forward expressing his political views, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience contrasts his previous work. Songs of Innocence and Experience creates ambiguity between the imagery and text. The ambiguity and undertones in his work, specifically, his poem London, NURSES SONG and The Chimney Sweeper, which all rely in Songs of Experience reveal his political views of the time.
The poems in Songs of Experience have a collective darker tone in contrast Songs of Innocence, and naivety of them. Blake creates this ambiguity through these collective poems by creating tones of imprisonment and victimization through the content and language. The combination of the language, repetition of words emphasizing and dramatizing the pain is evident throughout these works, however the actual image and what is represented questions the disparity the poem shows. However the combination of the presence of youth and warm coloring in the image creates a disjunction between Blake’s words and imagery. This ultimately causes ambiguity between the text and the imagery, showing the disjunction of the people and government during this period. In other words Blake is giving undertones of his political views and influences during the time through his work.
First looking at Blake’s poem London, it has four stanzas, and halfway through the poem Blake’s focus changes. The first part creates a feeling of suffocation, an inability to escape. His focus then shifts to personalize and universalize the victims, (the people) of London. In the second stanza there are three lines where there is a repetition in the language emphasizing these tones the poem creates.
“In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,”
Blake makes this sense of suffocation universal by making it broad and impersonal by showing there is a sense of low morale throughout the entire people of London. The word “every” universalizes the actions in each phrase, and the simplicity of the language makes no room for questioning this despair. In addition he uses the words “man” and “infants” showing this darkness effects everyone. To emphasize this, the last of the second stanza states, “mind forg’d manacles” alluding to the enslavement of infants. There is an overall feeling of suffocation in London because everyone is suffering. Additionally Frank Smitha who researched Britain in the mid seventeen hundreds states in his work, “With the rise in Britain's commerce, London had become a busier place and had been gathering more people from England's rural areas and from Scotland, Wales and Ireland. London also had migrants from Germany, Holland and France. London had become a great center for the arts and fashion” (Smitha). After reading his statement seeing that the population in London is growing, and becoming a more populated city, it seems that Blake’s poem London is what he is seeing due to the influx of the population on a broad scale. Additionally while Smitha talks about London in a positive way being “a great center for the arts and fashion,” the problems of the city are not mentioned in his work. Blake brings out these problems inhabited by many people of the city.
Blake goes on in the last two stanzas changing his focus to personalizing the victimization of the people of London. His focus changes here to personalizing from “every” to giving specific examples of how the people of London suffer. Specifically, looking at the children, in the third stanza it is said,
“How the Chimney-sweepers cry”
The allusion of the slavery is now tangible, exposing the mistreatment of children during this time. Although the reader cannot easily vision these people, Blake emphasizes their emotions. Additionally he is making a reference to another poem in Songs of Experience, The Chimney Sweeper. In this poem there is a line and it states,
“They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe…”
“…Who make up a heaven of our misery.”
Clothes of death and notes of woe reveal more specifically these chimneysweepers were put in high-risk conditions where an early death was evident. Even in the last line of the last stanza God is referred to, knowing that heaven awaits him. There is nothing uplifting about this poem besides the thought that heaven awaits. Blake continues to personalize his poem London in the fourth and final stanza as well articulating,
“Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse”
While many celebrate a newborn child and are overjoyed, this is a stark contrast of what one would expect. The use of the word “tear” shows the unhappiness that this child was brought into this world, the misery the mother has will soon be shared by the child. The word “plague” is associated with death, and here it is as if the child has entered or been introduced to their death. There is no hope for the child in this world he or she was brought into and Blake depicts this through the small selection of words he has used.
Blake makes his point of the injustice that occurred in London through his poem, fully describing the dirt, disease and death throughout it. There was a great emphasis on the children as well, and in the International Handbook on Juvenile Justice supports the atrocities committed onto the youth. Blake published Songs of Innocence and Experience in 1789. London in the late 1700’s was not an ideal place for children to grow up. For example in the International Handbook on Juvenile Justice: Chapter 6: England it is stated that, “In 1735, a 10-year old girl was an apprentice stole some money and was sentenced to die (Radzinowicz, 1948). Radzinowicz notes that 18 of the 20 people executed in London in 1785 were under the age of 18. Although rare, there are recorded instances of older children being executed well into the 1800’s. Young offenders under the age of seven could, then receive lenient treatment” (Hirschel Wakefield 93). This statement shows clear evidence of events that occurred during this time Blake was writing. Even though it does not show the poverty taken place in London during the time, it shows the injustices that were done onto children. It shows that Europe’s youth was working and there were reasons that the children needed to work and steal from those in their communities.
Additionally in Songs of Experience, NURSES SONG, the nurse, who is the speaker expresses bitterness and misfortune, giving the children no voice. Blake writes,
“Your spring & your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.”
She is unable to find happiness watching the children, showing the bitterness she feels using the word “wasted,” but also knowing what is ahead for them in their future, which is not a bright one. Winter and night are associated with darkness, and lack of life revealing that their futures are not a bright one.
Blake’s work London, supported by The Chimney Sweeper and NURSES SONG, confidently shows the darkness and despair that took place during this time. While some of the physical features in the imagery, shown in the poem London, support this struggle, the use of children and color question the darkness Blake displays. First, looking at the top of the image one sees an elderly man walking through the night with a small child. The body language of the two obviously shows the misery. The man physically looks exhausted and helpless, slumping over, reflecting how Blake described the people of London in the poem. However it is interesting that the child instead of looking miserable like the elderly man is looking up at him into the light, reaching out for the old man almost a if the child is reaching for hope. In addition the young boy is painted in green, which is associated with growth and youth. It is as if the boy is yearning to protect the elderly man, and provide him with the warmth he has lost but the boy still has. The coloring and lighting is important in this image because when reading the poem one would expect the image to be more dark, powerful and disturbing but that’s not what is presented here. The warm browns, orange and red throughout the painting contrast the darkness of the poem. In addition the light shinning in on the image takes up the majority of space, leaving only the corners with dark shadows makes me wonder if Blake is trying to portray that light overpowers darkness. This particular image coincides with and reinforces the image below.
The image below displays a young boy kneeling next to the fire for warmth. The boy is obviously cold and is in need of the warmth and protection. However the boy is painted in gold, which is associated with triumph and wealth. If Blake is so cynical towards the situation in London during this time why is this young boy painted gold. It seems counteractive to the language in the poem. In addition the use of a young boy is causing disjunctively with the poem just stating the awful lives children have. The boy could be struggling to find that warmth and protection, to overcome this darkness. The child is facing the light, which has warm reds, oranges and blues. The strokes look soft and full of body, contrasting something that could be hard and rigid like the dark times the poem was referring to.
Additionally the image in NURSES SONG, shows the nurse brushing the young girls hair, one can tell the nurse is handling this job delicately by the placement of her hands and head tilt towards the young girl. The whole scene looks graceful and bright. Even the young girl in the background has her head tilted, looking relaxed while reading a book. Additionally the girls are wearing green, and the plants that border the image are green and flourishing. Just like the boy in London, there is a sense of hope and growth portrayed in the children.
However the image in The Chimney Sweeper holds a darker tone. The entire image is shades of blue, and while the setting shows the boy out in the rain headed towards darkness, his body language is similar to the boys in the poem London. It is important to note that he was alone, working as a chimney sweeper, one was on their own and isolated from the outside world. He is looking up and into the distance, most likely looking at the storm but he is not frowning, in fact he is almost smiling. It is interesting that he does not look sad or frightened, because the reality of the situation did not have a positive outlook. Besides from chimney sweepers there were other high-risk for sickness jobs. The British Library Board states about the poor in London during the mid seventeen hundreds, “‘mudlarks’ of both sexes and all ages waded thigh‐deep in the filthy toxic Thames mud to retrieve anything they could sell. Dogs’ turds could be collected and sold to the tanneries to help create leather. Discarded cigar butts could be recycled and marketed as new” (The British Library Board). Sickness was all over London during this time, and could have been avoided but was the only source of money for the poor. People who dealt with dog turds and used cigar butts were bound for sickness and infection, showing that chimneysweepers were not alone in these harsh, death bound jobs. This disjunction between reality and conflicting ideas of what Blake presents in attention to why he does this.
Blake connects all three of the poems imagery through color and the body language of the children. By doing this Blake reveals that even though the situation in London is awful and he is cynical about the current state something needs to change. It is apparent that Blake has some hope for London’s future, because he would not create the disjunctively between the words and imagery for no reason at all. Blake is bringing and causing the readers attention to the current political situation.
The Purpose of his poetry and creating his imagery is to relay a message or learn something from it. Blake’s entire book Songs of Innocence and Experience, specifically his poem London, with supporting poems The Chimney Sweeper and NURSES SONG has many political undertones due to the fact there is endless disjunctivity and ambiguity present. The time period, and the place Blake was surrounded by would define him as a reformer. One incident discussed in The Poetry Foundation, reveals that events around him influenced his views and writings,
“One incident at this time affected Blake deeply. In June of 1780 riots broke out in London incited by the anti-Catholic preaching of Lord George Gordon but also by resistance to continued war against the American colonists. Houses, churches, and prisons were burned by uncontrollable mobs bent on destruction. On one evening, whether by design or by accident, Blake found himself at the front of the mob that burned Newgate prison. These images of violent destruction and unbridled revolution gave Blake powerful material for works such as Europe (1794) and America (1793)” (The Poetry Foundation).
Although Blake dedicated other material to outwardly express his political views, Songs of Experience was written within in the same years. He was actively involved in defying the government, and additionally The British Library wrote an article about him. It stated, “Blake’s view of philanthropic responses to poverty was probably always ambivalent. The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 gave a new political urgency to his views. In London a range of new radical groups emerged, demanding major changes to the political system” (Lincoln). While The Poetry Foundation shows that Blake’s actions influenced his work, The British Library shows that events spurred an urgency in Blake to act on his experiences. This supports and explains why the imagery in Blake’s work questions the words he says, and solidifies that light overpowers darkness. This undertone of light reveals that Blake believed London needed a political reform and that is why he created this disjunctive work His literal words show the lack of freedoms and suffocation and pain the people of London face but his imagery is about overcoming this struggle. Reformists of this time, including Blake went against traditional church thought and their great influence in society. Instead their beliefs supported civil liberties and fought for greater democracy. Therefore Blake’s Poem London, The Chimney Sweeper and NURSES SONG is simply shedding light to the social injustice that occurred and revealing the atrocities that were committed onto London’s own people. London shows how the Church and State failed their people. Blake shows this through the feelings of suffocation and victimization of the people. Blake’s imagery of the children relays that his people are suffering, and struggling but the colors and analysis show that there can be a brighter future with freedoms but reform and revolution needs to take place.
Much of Blake’s work in Songs of Innocence and Experience is ambiguous, but this ambiguity is the key and insight into his political views without him being blunt. His work states and exemplifies the hardships the people of London face every day. However his imagery counteracts what is written. It physically shows the struggles, but his use of innocent children and color create the possibility of a brighter future. Blake did this to shed light on the injustice occurring in London. Blake himself became a reformist through the experiences he had, including witnessing a mob, and seeing the backlash from the French Revolution. As a reformist he specifically vocalized his negative views toward church and state through his works of Songs of Innocence and Experience. He hoped for reform and revolution but it was only possible if people vocalized their views, and so he did in his work, and played his political role.
Hirschel, J. David, and William Wakefield. "Chapter 6: England." International Handbook on Juvenile Justice. By Donald J. Shoemaker. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996. N. pag. Print.
Smitha, Frank E. "Britain in the Mid-1700s." Britain in the Mid-1700s. Smitha, 2001-2014. Web. 01 Dec. 2014. <http://www.fsmitha.com/h3/h29-fr.htm>.
The British Library Board. "Health and Hygiene." Health and Hygiene. The British Library Board, n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2014. <http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/georgians/health/hygiene.html>.\
The Poetry Foundation. "William Blake." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2014. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/william-blake>.