Symbolism in William Blake’s Poetry

Published 13 Jun 2017

William Blake belongs to the most famous English poets, though his poetry was recognized only after his death. Firstly, the term “romanticism” was used in the middle of the 18th century and it caused popularity of symbolism. William Blake re-shapes English poetry due to his symbolic world outlook and his desire to show the real world through hidden and concealed meanings of the words. Blake’s symbolism is based primarily on personal feelings and emotions and he paid little attention to fact because symbolism promoted individuality, creativity, imagination and rejecting of values. Through symbolic poetry William Blake tends to express new values, new political ideas in order to promote the ideal brotherhood, equality and fairness in the country. Moreover, Blake’s symbolism is very lyrical and his poems are filled with passion, though Blake tends to use subversion of symbols. (Appelbaum 1996)

Actually, all William Blake’s poems are very symbolic, though it is necessary to underline that “The Garden of Love” and “London” both seem to be the most expressive and touching because the author wanted to protect his original and unique perception of the society and the world in them. Blake is strongly interested in symbolism and, therefore, he is not simply a poet, but rather an artist who wants to show aggressive, repressive and cold nature of religious and political regimes. Symbolism is used to underline the end of traditions and desire to fight against oppressors. His poetry isn’t “correct”; instead, he seems to be rather concerned with imagination and experience being the most important for him. Blake’s poems illustrate that the real meanings are symbolic ones. The purpose of “London” and “The Garden of Love” is to awaken inactive imagination, to show hell and paradise, to stimulate new vision and to prove that the world can be changed and improved.

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“London” by William Blake is a poem telling about society being troubled by the mistakes of the previous generation. The poem describes dirty streets of London, its social environment and political events. Actually, the language of the poem is rather expressive and vivid, because the author tends to provide common words with new fresh meanings in order to achieve the desired expression. The author uses spoken observations of a symbolic character to narrate and to refresh the political and social problems endangering city’s residents in the beginning of the 19th century. (Appelbaum 1996)

Throughout the poem William Blake uses the symbols and images to convey the message directly to readers. For example, first two stanzas are characterized by word choice because the author wants to set the mournful atmosphere. Interestingly, the reader is introduced as a “wander through the charted society”. In such a way the author shows that every person is “marks of weakness, marks of woe”. The words “cry” and “every” are the symbols of depression afflicting the whole society. The phrase “mind-forged manacles” assumes that the narrator is mentally instable. (Appelbaum 1996)

The third stanza represents the use of religious and destructive symbols. For example, “chimney-sweeper’s cry” symbolizes that society is trying to cope with the causes of depression. Religious imagery “black’ning church” symbolizes the loss of innocence and, possible, represents society’s abandonment of religion. The “hapless soldier’s sigh” symbolizes the war and men who have no choice but to serve in the army. Thus, Black uses the sense of destruction stating that people are forced to cope with weakness. The last stanza of the poem reveals the most complex meaning. For example, “youthful harlot’s curse” shows that next generation will be affected by the sinful deeds of the youth. “Plagues” are the symbols of curse, whereas “marriage hearse” aims at confusing death and eternity. The poem is very symbolic representing vividly the sorrows and weaknesses of the society.

Futher, symbols in the poem are used to show the evil effect of the revolution in the city. Through symbols the author shows the dirty streets of the city stating that the city is dying. Also he makes people see “what London had become”. However, symbolism in the poem is very dark and melancholic aimed at highlighting horrible environment and people who are forced to live in it. Symbols are images of shame, despair and death, though they are rather colorless and have nothing to do with the themes of the poem. Other symbols are the symbol of Christianity to show that power is strongly abused: “How the chimney sweeper’s cry, Every black’ning Church appals”.

Thus, this chimney sweeper symbolizes the child who is lost and is forced to work in the dirtiness of the church being in its turn the symbol of punitive crime and absolute power. (Appelbaum 1996)Industrial revolution was a time when it was difficult for women to find job and they were forced to become prostitutes to survive in difficult times. Evil effects of the revolution are emphasized through symbols as well: “How the youthful Harlot’s curse,

Blasts the new born infants fear, and blights with plagues the marriage hearse”. This phrase symbolizes women’s despair because the city was killing itself when forcing women to sell themselves for money. Women become ill and men, consequently, get disease from prostitutes and bring disease home to their wives who are bearing children and, thus, children are born with disparities. In such a way the city is self-murderer. The carriage of the married is the symbols of the inevitable death and funeral.

“The Garden of Love” is also filled with symbolic and concealed meanings. The poem tells that life and happiness should be pursued. And in order to achieve the desire effect that author refers to religious symbols to show that love and negative can be on a par. However, negativity is strongly concealed by symbols. Central problem of the poem is conflict between individual and organized religion. Thus, William Blake states that he doesn’t support the church as an institution and through symbols shows that religion can be destroyed along with creator: “thou shalt not writ over the door”. This negative phrase symbolizes destruction and limitations. Actually, symbols in the poem are both positive and negative. The words “green, love, bore… sweet flowers” are the symbols of breath and life and the eternal desire to seek for creativity and individuality. (Appelbaum 1996)

The church is represented through negative symbols conveying pessimism and positive meanings. Blake shows symbolically that negativity has power over positive things. The garden of love itself is the garden of death and the church is viewed as evil because it doesn’t allow poor people to come in: “And the gates of this Chapel were shut”. The church symbolizes inequality and power of the rich over the poor. Flowers in their turn are compared with tombstones. The author uses “new buildings, graves, black gowns” as the symbols of darkness and negativity. The positive symbols are seen only in the first stanza, whereas others are overflowing with negative meanings: “And I saw it was filled with graves, And tomb-stones where flowers should be: And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds, And binding with briars, my joys and desires”. (Appelbaum 1996)

The next moment to mention is that the voice in the poem is the symbol of time and inevitable changes. In the first stanza the voice is exploring, pure and innocent: “I went to the Garden of Love, and saw what I never had seen…Where I used to play on the green”. Nevertheless, with poem progression the voice is constantly changing because the church possesses more power over environment: “And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds, And binding with briars, my joys and desires”. Religious symbols are used to show that love is dined. The only environment in the poem that symbolizes positivity is refugees who are willing to find shelter. They support love, whereas the priests deny it because they have to follow celibacy. (Appelbaum 1996)

In conclusion it is necessary to admit that both poem “London” and “The Garden of Love” brilliantly enters readers into the inner world of William Blake’s personal feelings, emotions and thoughts. Blake’s symbolic poetry is very creative and amazing because it encourages, stimulates and inspires others in the world. Blake’s poems make people think that world should be seen from fresh point of view and things can be another than they are though to be.

Works Cited

  • Appelbaum, Stanley. English Romantic Poetry: An Anthology. New York: Dover Publications, 1996.
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