‘Blake’s voice is the voice of freedom.’ Do you agree with this claim?
Support your answer with reference to the Songs of Innocence and Experience.
One of the most evident features seen in Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience,’ is the poet’s constant reference to contemporary injustice and repression. For Blake, the misconceptual attitudes and social/religious ethics of contemporary society lay at the heart of the nation’s common misery.
The society of Eighteenth century London dominates the Songs of Innocence and Experience, and it is largely through Blake’s handling of society that we discover his views on contemporary social order and morality. In understanding Blake and his works, we must understand the social structure of his times. We must remember that Blake’s was an age of rigid class distinction, in which social advancement for the lower classes was simply impossible. Education of any quality was rare for those not privileged enough to afford schooling, and the first real Education Bill for the poor did not appear until 1802, six years following the publication of the Songs of Experience:
‘Blake was writing against slavery: spiritual, political, artistic and social.’ (1.) Michael Davis, from ‘Blake, a new kind of man’.
Dominating every aspect of mainstream British culture and political administration were the ruling classes, comprising two main groups: the city-rich businessmen of London and provincial factory owners – whose influence in parliament was at this time growing as a voice for vested interest in industry, and the landed aristocracy – who still dominated both houses of parliament, and whose interests lay largely with the maintenance of the monarchy, and preservation of their regional landed privileges.
The world of Blake was dominated by the squalor and deprivation of contemporary London, and by the abuse and exploitation of the poor by the factory system. This was an age when children as young as six might work on crude, heavy machinery for unregulated periods of time. The vast majority of the population lived in appalling poverty, and at the close of the century, had an average life expectancy of twenty years.
Politically, Blake’s world was entirely in the hands of landed aristocrats. The houses of Lords and commons were entirely controlled by them, and commons seats were often acquired through bribery or similar corrupt practices. .
The King, George III, chose his own Prime Minister, and was able to influence politics in the commons through him. Power therefore lay in the hands of the aristocracy, and King.
Social Reform had been demanded by an increasingly literate and educated society in Britain throughout the mid eighteenth century – championed by popular radicals, such as John Wilkes – whose newspaper ‘The North Britain’ bitterly criticized contemporary social and electoral injustice during the 1760’s. Later philosophers and thinkers, such as Thomas Paine with his work ‘The Rights of Man’ (1791,) sought to popularize the same kind of social equality championed by advocates of the American and French Revolutions, where an ideal democracy would replace Britain’s traditional oligarchic system.
In France, the French ‘Philosophes’ had struggled to democratize French privilege-riddled society through their writings, influencing many British radicals and philosophers – particularly through Jean Jacques Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’ (1762.)
Blake’s London was therefore the setting for the playing out of social conflicts and tensions, that embodied a wider mood of change spreading across contemporary Europe. The people of London had demonstrated openly against living conditions and taxation many times during Blake’s lifetime, and magistrates were prone to react harshly to any such disturbance, sometimes opening fire on crowds to disperse them. Furthermore, with the Revolution in France having begun in 1788, London’s elite lived in constant fear of the mob. By 1790, an apparently bloodless revolution in France had become a Jacobin bloodbath, cumulating with the execution of the Royal family in 1792, and ‘September Massacres’ of 1793 – in which many thousands of both upper and lower classes were murdered in the name of liberty.
Blake, like other advocates of reform, viewed the early French revolution with optimism – believing that a democratic France, and perhaps Europe was about to be born, based upon the American model. But with the Terror of 1791-3, he grew disillusioned with the very concept of Revolution, and was appalled by the militant overthrow of the Girondin government by the dictator Robespierre:
‘Blake sympathized with the Revolution. he always claimed to be a faithful son of Liberty.’
Blake’s world was therefore a politically uncertain one and perhaps dangerously close to social collapse.
During the final decades of the Eighteenth century, The traditional status quo of King and Constitution in Britain still survived – albeit under the sparing social reform of William Pitt the Younger. War with Revolutionary France loomed on the horizon, with the French invasion of Belgium in 1792, and the ‘Edict of Fraternity’ of the same year, issued by the French Republic to the world’s poor, appealing for world-wide insurrection against oppressive governments.
It is against this patchwork of cultural change that we must examine Blake’s thoughts on freedom and liberty; Blake was certainly aware of many major philosophical treaties to emerge from American and British radicals during the American War of Independence – he is known to have been friendly with Thomas Paine, and to have attended ‘correspondence’ societies – regular meetings of reform supporters, many of whom had corresponded with the ministers of the new French Parliament. It is well documented that Blake was known to some of the most controversial and famous philosophers and thinkers of the age:
‘…Blake would have discussed with such critical writers, such as Fuseli, Godwin and the free thinker, Joseph Priestly.’
(3. William Blake, by Raymond Lister.)
In Blake’s ‘Songs Of Innocence and Experience’ therefore, we are presented with the works of an artist who has been influenced enormously by the explosive social, economic and political discussions raging across Britain and the world at this time. In the ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience,’ Blake attempts to reveal repression in society in both its overt and covert forms.
For Blake, society represses outwardly – in the form of laws and disenfranchisement (e.g: lack of popular right to vote,) and inwardly – in the form of social convention and indoctrination – and through the maintenance of an ignorant proletariat. Far from maintenance of the Status quo through violence, it is in fact, the common people who repress themselves, in their willingness to adopt the attitudes, preconceptions and ethics – both religious and moral of the establishment that represses them.
It is this multi-faceted repression and inequality that Blake addresses in his poems. It can be seen that Blake’s works contain a revelatory message of hope and freedom, from what the poet perceives to be man’s moribund and misconceptual state on Earth. The corruption and tyranny of contemporary London society is inevitably associated with that of mankind generally.
Alongside earthly repression, and the immediate injustices of London, Blake suggests – in a religious context, the spiritual release of the oppressed soul from earthly oppression as the ultimate means of overcoming worldly injustice. Although at times a declared atheist, Blake subscribed to much of the religious metaphysics of the Sweedish philosipher Swedenborg, beleiving in the necessity of opposities in the human condition to mainatin a healthy equibrillium:
‘ God, the source of all good, prompts Blake to add, ‘Good and Evil are here both Good & the two contraries Married.’
For Blake, all men are innately pure, imbued with a personal spiritual morality corrupted only through worldly experience; the soul of man is important – since contained within it is the ‘Divine image’ of ‘mercy, pity. peace and love. ‘
(The Divine Image’ – Songs of Innocence and Experience.)
This elemental affinity with Christ’s message: of brotherly love and forgiveness, is constantly in conflict with a destructive instinct to dominate and prosper at the expense of others.
Blake identifies the innate Christ-like essence in man with ‘Innocence’ – a state of being contained within the human soul, which most resembles the purity of Adam before the fall from grace. Innocence is most present in the child, rather than the adult, since the morality of the child is natural, rather than based upon the indoctrinated, ingrained ethics of a corrupt mercantile society. Within innocence there lies uninhibited empathy for others, and the desire to express the self. Innocence is the life-blood of creativity and imagination.
Blake associates the instinctive desire within man to acquire material power – oppressing others in the process, with ‘Experience,’ an inevitable stage in human development which signifies the coming of adulthood, and indoctrination in the selfish, mercantile world of harsh reality. Like the fallen Adam, man’s innocence is corrupted through his partaking of the fruits of knowledge and experience. Blake pleads with mankind to retain our innocent vision of the world, to embrace the basic Christian values of brotherly love found in the innocence of children, and to be guided by that morality, rather than the ethics of a corrupt establishment or church.
At times, Blake presents the two worlds, or aspects of the human soul as polarized opposites, in the Songs of Innocence, we are usually presented with a utopian conception of the innocent state, where mankind lives alongside nature in an idyllic natural landscape. Children, a symbol of innocence are seen expressing the simple piety and sexuality of ‘Innocence’ in play. Natural morality is at work, rather than written laws, man exists in his natural, rather than imperfect and corruptible ‘Experienced’ state.
Blake views society as elemental to the state of ‘Experience,’ the individual, society and establishment are all subject to the corrupt state of materialistic living and civilized squalor. Blake’s society is blind to the true nature of human morality, and of Christ. In the society of London, human existence is bound to social and religious convention, where the natural Christ-like expression of brotherly love and mutual forgiveness is obscured in the citizens’ everyday misery:
‘All sorts of slavery appalled Blake, and his works can be seen as variations on the theme of liberty and enslavement.’
In the Experience poem ‘London,’ Blake describes the ‘mind-forged manacles’ of the people; these manacles represent the servility of a populus indoctrinated into living by the ethics and laws of the establishment. The very streets and river seem confined, regimented and defined by social order:
‘I wander thro’ each chartered street,
near where the chartered Thames does flow…’
This society is not ruled by the mythical legality of British liberty, or even by brotherly Christian love, but by ‘Chartered Tyranny:’
‘…And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.’
The ‘marks’ of humanity seem to refer to Adam and Cain. Like them, mankind has transgressed through experience, a mark or curse in itself; like the Biblical characters, they exist outside the protection of God.
The cries of the people suggest the anguish and suffering of London’s poor, the cry of the sweeper is heard by the ruling class, but the Established Church, although ‘appalled’ will not alleviate the suffering of the poor:
‘How the Chimney sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appalls…’
The palace is indifferent to the soldier’s sacrifice of life for his country, the palace is built upon blood:
‘And the hapless soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.’
The new-born infant, rather than seen as a symbol of life, is one of the corrupt city-existence of the harlot – veneral disease and death indicate the amorality of the establishment, which keeps its populus in poverty to preserve their servility:
‘But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new born infant’s tear…’
The people of London are all defined by their environment – they exist beneath unnatural or false individualities – arising from the conventions, prohibitions and laws of society. They are isolated from each other and God, seen in the fact that they are ‘marked’ – Cain was forced into an isolated existence after his ‘mark.’
In the illustration to the poem, we see a limping oldster, supported by a crutch, and assisted by a child. The old man represents a self-crippled society, lame due to its own self-imposed restrictions and misconceptions, the beard suggests Blake’s ‘Urizen,’ symbol of man’s misconceptual religious attitudes and repression of natural morality. The oldster is seen emerging from the darkness of ignorance into the light of truth, led by the child – symbol of innocence.
The ultimate portrayal in London, is of a repressive and corrupt regime, unwilling to alleviate the suffering of its citizens because of its simple unwillingness to change or risk any loss of authority.
Blake condemns the establishment of his day as wholly oppressive against genuine morality. Similarly, Blake condemns the Church as a sham of misconceptual and dogmatic ideology, serving no purpose other than to support the corrupt establishment. In the ‘Innocence’ poem, ‘Holy Thursday,’ Blake discusses the hypocrisy of the established church, where the children of a Charity School give thanks for their schooling and charity. The irony, is that these were often badly run institutions, with appalling conditions. The charity these children receive is given to promote the social status of the benefactors – portrayed typically as ‘aged men:’
‘Beneath them sit the aged man wise guardians of the poor
Then cherish pity; lest you drive an angel from your door.’
Similarly, the practice of contemporary religion is scorned by Blake. Religion is institutionalized faith, where ethical systems and socially accepted attitudes – rather than natural morality influence society. In ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ of Experience, the church instructs the waif’s parents whilst they – in the belief that church attendance will sanctify them – ignore the misery they inflict upon their child – interpreting his natural exuberance as happiness and joy:
‘And because I am happy, & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury.’
The church is seen in the context of a society which propagates a system of misconceived beliefs and values, alongside the state in general; the parents are indoctrinated into these values through tradition and deference:
‘And are gone to praise God & his priest & his king
Who make up a heaven in our misery
The church is also seen in sexually and morally repressive terms. In contrast to this, Blake defines natural morality in ‘The Blossom’ of Innocence, where the copulation of blossom and sparrow is a joyful and natural act:
‘Merry merry sparrow
Under leaf so green
A happy blossom
sees you swift as arrow
seek your cradle narrow
Near my Bosom.’
The illustration accompanying the illustration suggests a growing tree of fire, possibly a phallic symbol – suggesting the inevitable and natural morality of sexuality, also suggesting Blake’s ‘Marriage of Heaven and Hell,’ at the core of of which is Blake’s argument:
‘Without contraries there is no progression.’
(Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake – Cambridge Press, Page 7.)
However, this natural morality is restrained and corrupted by the ethics of church and state. In ‘The garden of love,’ (experience,) the natural state is repressed by the beliefs of priests, who – like the parents, believe sexuality and free expression of natural morality is wrong; they seek to confine the energies and expressive forces of innocence by imposing ethical dogmas on the populus. The narrator of the poem, a clearly defined speaker, considers how his innocence has altered through the imposition of religious doctrine, the ‘flowers’ and ‘green’ of childhood innocence are replaced with a ‘chapel’ of repression, ‘graves’ and ‘priests in black gowns,’ perhaps symbolizing the dismay of the speaker in realizing what he has lost in loosing his former state. He seems to question his present ethical/ religious position, but the conclusion is defined by the priests – symbols of a dogmatic and repressive moral order; they ‘bind’ the natural morality of the speaker , he recognizes the injustice they do, but is helpless:
‘I went to the Garden of love.
And saw what I never had seen:
A chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green…’
The visit to the garden, a garden of ‘love’ suggests an adolescent’s awakening to social/ sexual convention and restriction, representing the kind of casual young love represented in the frolicking child-figures of ‘The Echoing Green’ illustration.
The ‘Echoing Green’ of ‘Innocence’, can be seen as a contrast to ‘The Garden of Love’, in its portrayal of an environment of tranquil idyllicism and soft pastoral landscapes. Man is seen in blissful harmony with nature. The images of the lamb and child are present in the illustration, both symbols of the true Christ and Man.
Interestingly, this landscape is peopled by both the elderly and young; the point of the poem, is that in the ideal state of innocence, where human morality and Christian love are present, the old have not lost their innocence, but still retain the essence of Christ in their spirit, which fosters tolerance and brotherly love. The children seen playing are symbolic of freedom in sexual expression, they symbolize an ideal community for Blake, where human morality and simple Christian values are paramount. Images of spring and nature suggest the sexual element for the children:
‘The sun does arise,
And make happy the skies,
The merry bells ring,
To welcome the spring….’
Old John represents the opposite of Blake’s tyrannical ‘Urizen’, the oldster of ‘London,’ he encourages natural morality:
‘Old John with white hair,
Does laugh away care,
Sitting under the oak,
Amongst the old folk.’
John actually remembers his youth, indicating his ability to emphasize with the young:
Such such were the joys,
When we all girls and boys,
In our youth time were seen,
On the echoing Green.’
The children, asleep with their mother beneath the shadow of the tree, a symbol of life, suggest the released spirits of the earthly oppressed, whose souls, seen as children have attained the innocent state following physical death. The message here is of the poet’s appeal for the old to look back on their innocence, and to nurture, rather than repress youth – and of a message of hope and spiritual freedom for the oppressed masses of earth, represented as innocent children:
‘The freedom that Blake considered most important was spiritual freedom’
Alongside the two main stands of freedom Blake addresses: Social and Spiritual, we see a variety of emphases on different types of repression in the poems.
Sexual freedom is one of the most controversial messages of the poems – the state of contemporary sexuality was held in scorn by Blake, who viewed society marriages as based upon insincere love.
The right to express sexuality freely, and without social, religious, financial and parental restraint is portrayed in the ideal state of Innocence, where frolicking youths are depicted in the poems and illustrations, usually alongside symbols of growth and regeneration.
In ‘Laughing Song,’ Blake portrays contemporary society in deeply critical terms, the ideal, communal community of the youths is an unobtainable utopia:
‘When the painted birds laugh in the shade
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread
Come live & be merry and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of ha, ha , he.’
The painted birds suggest the corrupt state of ‘Experienced’ love, where the female must adopt a false character to survive in society. Blake seems to call for a wider and more egalitarian form of love for women – one not subject to tradition and social convention, but one where the values of beauty and appearance – prized by contemporary male dominated society, are second to inner spiritual and moral character:
‘When Mary and Susan and Emily,
With their sweet round mouths sing Ha, ha, He.’
Similarly, Blake discusses freedom from society’s mistrust and deception of itself: an example of this is ‘My pretty Rose Tree,’ where the poet is offered ‘a flower’, but refuses it – this however, does not please his ‘pretty rose tree,’ or spouse, since she cannot believe he is able to resist the temptation to commit adultery, or practice an inner, human morality:
‘But my rose turned away with jealousy:
And her thorns were my only delight.’
Alongside sexual freedom, and the breaking down of conventions determining the behaviour and attitudes of society, Blake discusses social emancipation for elements in society who are subject to oppression by the Establishment. Women, as discussed, are are portrayed as abused individuals, subject to an indifferent, and male-dominated social world;
‘But most thro’ midnight streets I hear,
How the youthful harlot’s curse….’
(London – Experience.)
Similarly, in a radical step, Blake pleads for social equality between the world’s races; in ‘The little Black boy,’ (Innocence,) the spirit of the boy is depicted in the poem as white, a symbol of spiritual freedom:
‘My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white,
White as an angel is the English Child;
But Ii am black, as if bereaved of light.’
The boy is able to see God through his oppression. The colour of skin is simply the appearance of man: In the state of innocence, there is no distinction between the spirit of the black or white boy – each overcomes repression in his own way: the black boy overcomes social injustice, and the white boy the misconceptions and indoctrination that Experience has bestowed upon him. The oppressors and oppressed will attain spiritual release from the state of Experience:
”The cloud will vanish – we shall hear his voice,
Saying: come out from the grove, my love and care,
And round my tents like lambs rejoice.’
Similarly, Blake illustrates the suffering of the most helpless casualties of his age: typified in the children of London’s slums. In particular, Blake addresses the plight of the chimney sweeper, whose job often resulted in suffocation and death.
In The chimney sweeper’ of Innocence, spiritual release is promised – but the tone of the poem is ironic, stressing the importance of the physical as well as the spiritual world, Blake seem to imply that freedom is at hand for the sweeps, but that their situation is still unjust:
‘And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work,
Thou’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm.
So if all do their duty, they need fear no harm.’
this stress on the importance of justice and compassion in for the less fortunate in society is echoed in ‘The Little Vagabond’ of Experience:
‘But if at the church, they would give us some ale,
And a pleasant fire, our souls to regale:
We’d sing and we’d pray all the live live day:
Nor ever once from the church to stray.’
Despite his emphasis on the spiritual, Blake does therefore address the material injustice of his world, and the need for its reform. Political emphasis is seen in “London’s’ ‘chartered streets’ and the plight of the slain soldier. In ‘Earth’s answer’, Bake attacks the injustices of Britain, as the ‘manacles’ of a repressive idelogical and religious ethic, typified by Blake’s Urizen, an epitomy of the religious and political reactionary state:
‘I hear the father of the Father of the ancient men,
Selfish father of men
Cruel jealous selfish fear..’
The establishment is like Urizen, struggling to maintain their power, whilst jealous of those attempting to share that power, and fearful of the kind of social rebellion seen in France:
‘Break this heavy chain,
That does freeze my bones around!’
Blake’s ultimate message of freedom is perhaps expressed in ‘The Divine Image,’ where he pleads for a reversion to the simple piety and faith expressed in children – he associates his ideal state on earth with the Christian and moral values of ‘Mercy, Pity, Peace and love:
‘For Mercy, Pity, peace and Love,
Is God our father dear:
And Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
Is Man, his child and care.’
Blake concludes, that innate human morality is the essence of God, rather than an external deity, Man is Christ, and vice-versa, it is for man to break the bonds of his own condition, and take on his own corrupt state, regardless of religion or race. This monotheism of mankind: worshipping only the ‘human form divine,’ and human morality seems almost atheistic, and suggests Blake’s sincerity as an advocate of reform:
‘And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk or Jew.
Where Mercy, Love, & Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.’
Perhaps the best poem illustrating Blake’s vision of contemporary society is ‘The Tyger,’ an image of society brutalized into the predatory and animalistic form of a wild beast. The Tyger expresses Blake’s whole sense of what the ‘Experienced ‘ state means, identifying it as a an indispensable source of vitality and energy for mankind, much in the same way Blake uses the image of fire in ‘The marriage of Heaven and Hell:’
‘Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night.’
In this context, the Tyger epitomizes the experienced state without its ‘Innocent’ counterpart. Blake accertains that ‘Without contraries is no progression, attraction and repulsion, reason and Energy … are necessary to Human existence.’
(7. Plate 3, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. – Blake.)
In terms of freedom, the Tyger expresses the rage and anger of society against the unimaginative and corrupt establishment of Urizen. Blake questions how such violent energy has been created, declaring that the Tyger’s anger is an uncontrollable and perplexed expression of social injustice – devoid of the simple piety of a free people. Mental complexity and a sense of society’s aberrant loss of the morality of the ‘divine image’, is expressed in images of forests, night and the expanse of the cosmos:
‘When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see….?’
The Tyger therefore, illustrates the rage and sense of injustice expressed by society, and as in many of the ‘Songs.’ is an expression of opposites and extremes. The Tyger lacks the ‘Divine image’, or any semblance of humanity – it expresses the uncontrollable power of the mob, as seen in the French Revolution. In this context, ‘The Tyger’ is more a warning to the establishment, than an expression of ideal rebellion.
In conclusion, I believe that the “Songs of Innocence and Experience,’ do indeed stress the poet’s sense of moral outrage against the injustices of his times. Freedom for Blake incorporated many aspects of human and spiritual life, not only in a political and emancipatiory context, but through issues such as women’s rights, sexual repression and convention, and interestingly – the concept of self-repression by the masses – and mankinditself.
Blake addresses the ‘Innocence’ in us all, begging society to cast off the yolk of oppression, whilst still retaining our basic humanity. The qualities of Innocence and Experience, expressed in the two contrary books, as opposites, must fuse in man to create a just and compassionate society.
No single state can dominate the human soul, without equibrillium, chaos and oppression ensue.
Only by embracing the basic tenets of Blake’s philosophy can we hope to attain the promised Jerusalem, an expression of hope in the decency and common morality of man:
‘To mercy, pity peace and love all pray in their distress,
And to these mercies of delight, Return their thankfulness.’
William Blake by D.G. Gillham, Cambridge University Press, 1973.
William Blake – Songs Of Innocence and Experience,’ Oxford University Press, 1996 (facsimile of 1794 edition.)
William Blake, A New Kind Of Man, by Michael Davis, Elek Press, 1977.
(1.) Page 43.
(2.) Page 42
(4.) Page 40
(5.) Page 42
(6.) page 42
William Blake, by Raymond Lister, Bell Press – 1968.
(3.) Page 40.
The Romantic Imagination, A collection of essays, Edited by John Spencer Hill, Macmillan Press, 1977.
The Romantics, Edited by Stephen Prickett, Methuen Press, 1981.
Romanticism, Edited by John D. Jump, Methuen Press, 1969.
William Blake – The Marriage Of Heaven and Hell, Cambridge Press, 1991.
(7.) Plate 3, page 7.