William Blake: Romantic Master
Published 13 Jun 2017
William Blake was an 18th and 19th century British Romanticist poet who created many of his powerful literary works in the form of beautiful engravings, yet celebrating little success in publishing and artistry during his own lifetime (Gilchrist, 2008). Despite his relative lack of popularity during his own time, Blake has left a literary legacy to the art form of poetry and craftsmanship, and stands as one of the masters of the Romantic movement. Although Blake was married and devoted to his wife, he lived almost in a state of poverty during his lifetime, and his wife bore no children. Looked upon as a sort of eccentric madman, Blake did study and socialize within the London artistic circuit.
He was devoted to the concepts within the New Testament and felt very spiritually as well as artistically inclined, believing that he could commune with angels and the dead. In regard to social justice, he abhorred all type of oppression, and stood firm for sexual and racial equality and justice. In keeping with the Romantic inclination to define beauty, Blake was mystically enthralled by the opposing concepts of good and evil, innocence and experience, and heaven and hell. In his primary or most popular works of literature entitled Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, Blake depicts the differences between the happy and innocent people and the shameful and guilty ones.
In Songs of Innocence, Blake wrote a poem called The Lamb, which highlights the life and experiences of the innocent and divine child. This work of poetry, like many of his others, is written like a nursery rhyme, with simple and repetitive language and rhymes. The Lamb embraces the theme of innocence and celebrates the “meek… and mild… little child”, making direct references to God through Jesus Christ by use of the uppercase “He”. Referencing himself as well as the reader, Blake makes confidence statements that both he and the reader are called to be like Jesus and are loved and blessed by God, the symbol of the lamb. In this celebration of innocence, Blake, the writer, the speaker, proclaims himself and the child reader as belonging to the spiritual and divine realm as children of God.
He states with assurance that “We are called by His name, Little lamb, God bless thee!”, striking a comforting and nurturing tone. By the use of rhyme and allusion, repetition and regular rhythm with 6 or 7 beats per line, Blake creates a simple and sing-song music with his words, tying up the beginning and end of his poetry with verbal and metric similarities and balance.
In one of Blake’s poems from Songs of Experience, Blake tells the darker tale of the Tyger. Again, Blake addresses the idea of the spiritual world, however, this time, it is the rejection of goodness and the divine, making way for evil. Here, Blake is far from self assured and casts a wary eye to the tiger who walks the “forests of the night”. He questions the tiger and his purpose in the world, or rather he questions the maker of the tiger, the “immortal hand or eye” which framed the tiger’s “fearful symmetry”. Blake seems unable to reconcile the fear in the heart with the nature of the tiger, and frames the tiger as an evil beast, the symbol of the devil, far from the ideal lamb, the more soothing and familiar image of goodness.
The rhythm of this poem is a bit longer, with 7 or 8 beats per line, also filled with rhyme and allusion, such as these two lines “What the anvil? what dread grasp, Dare its deadly terrors clasp?” The confidence heard in The Lamb is lost when reading The Tyger, and the reader is left wondering if Blake sees no divinity in things which are strong or resolute, characteristics of the natural beast of the tiger animal. Instead of viewing the tiger as a natural and spiritual creature, the tiger is framed by Blake as being suspicious and lacking in meaning and purpose, drawing an analogy to the questionable actions of evil people and the “ twist(ed) sinews (of their) hearts”.
In another Song of Experience, The Angel, Blake tells the tale of the angel who came to visit him, the immortal messenger to tries to communicate with a resistant and unappreciative mortal. Again with rhythms of 7 and 8 beats per line, Blake carves out a heart wrenching poem, where he is the old man who is unable to hear the beautiful calls of the angels, who instead bristles defiantly, “Soon my angel came again, I was armed, he came in vain”.
Here, both the rhyme and allusion so typical of Blake are eloquently crafted in the voice of a character, Blake himself, who stubbornly and blankly refuses the good will and good nature of God. In this poem, Blake is weeping, unable to be consoled, despite God’s constant consolation, “And I wept both night and day, And he wiped my tears away; And I wept both day and night, And hid from him my heart’s delight.” The character struggles with God in a battle of wills, the speaker forcing his own will, despite the personal agony it creates and despite his separation from the will of God. Blake hides himself from God and rejects the nurturing presence offered to him, huddling in a puddle of self inflicted sorrow.
The stark yet simple morality presented by Blake is carved out through his words and through his actual art work in masterful elegance. Blake is able to both offer a picture of the person who is in tune with the holistic goodness of the universe as well as to illuminate the life struggles of the individual who is separated from God through his own ignorance and stupidity. Although Blake touches on both types of characters, he does generate sympathy in the reader for all of his spiritual successes and failures. Perhaps drawing on his own attempts to remain connected to God and the romance of being united with the divine, Blake presents the battle of morality with dignity in humanism and passion in desiring to touch the heartbeat of divinity through correct actions.
- Gilchrist, A. Life of William Blake. Read Books, 2008.