William Blake Unshackled

Romantic poet and painter William Blake (1757-1827). His Songs of Innocence and Experience were a contrast of the ordinary mechanistic world to the vibrant imaginative world which could see the world anew, perhaps even as it really is. He recognized man as struggling between the imaginative naivete’ and the realism of what old age imposes on us. He gives us no definite answers to the true meaning of the poems. However, I believe Blake wants us to break free from the formalisms of ordinary thought. He wants to stretch our minds to wonder and wander through a sometimes bright and sometimes dark world which we find ourselves in. Or as Blake puts it:

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

For man has closed himself up till he sees all things thro narrow chinks of his cavern[1][2]

Meaning that if man had his childlike wonder and sensibilities he would see things as they naturally are, as infinite. However, we’ve come to mechanize everything through science and industrialization. Furthermore, the Enlightenment man, through the materialist philosophy, began to reduce everything to whatever nuts and bolts he can reduce things to, from pocket watches to man himself–man the machine, who can wind his own clock.  Blake’s painting Europe a Prophecy gives us a glimmer us his viewpoint on the Enlightenment:

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William Blake’s Europe a Prophecy

This is Blake’s portrayal of a Newtonian god who is limited to the sight of measurement, and constrained by mathematics. The European viewpoint of the age of Enlightenment and reason. For Blake, imagination was everything, however, mathematics mechanized that imagination. When we routinely look at the world in the same tired way we become fixed functionalism on how we color the world, in mostly black and white. William Blake would have us break free from traditional thoughts, from heuristics, to force us to see the world anew.

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Songs of Innocence and Experience

Showing The Two Contrary States of the Human Soul

Written in 1798

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The Lamb[3]

Little Lamb who made thee

Dost thou know who made thee

Gave thee life & bid thee feed.

By the stream & o’er the mead;

Gave thee clothing of delight,

Softest clothing wooly bright;

Gave thee such a tender voice,

Making all the vales rejoice:

Little Lamb who made thee

Dost thou know who made thee

 

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee:

He is called by thy name,

For he calls himself a Lamb[4]:

He is meek & he is mild,

He became a little child:

I a child & thou a lamb,

We are called by his name.

Little Lamb God [5]bless thee.

Little Lamb God bless thee.

 

Songs of Experience

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The Tyger[6]

Tyger Tyger. burning bright,

 In the forests of the night:

 What immortal hand or eye,

 Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

 

In what distant deeps or skies.

 Burnt the fire of thine eyes!

 On what wings dare he aspire!

 What the hand, dare sieze the fire?

 

And what shoulder, & what art,

 Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

 And when thy heart began to beat,

 What dread hand? & what dread feet?

 What the hammer? what the chain,

 In what furnace was thy brain?

 What the anvil? what dread grasp,

 Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

 

When the stars threw down their spears[7]

And water’d heaven with their tears:

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?[8]

Tyger, Tyger burning bright,

In the forests of the night:

What immortal hand or eye,

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?[9]

 

Auguries [10]of Innocence[11]

Written in 1803

To see a world in a grain of sand,  [12]

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour. [13]

 

A robin redbreast in a cage

Puts all heaven in a rage. [14]

A dove-house filled with doves and pigeons

Shudders hell thro all its regions.

A dog starved at his master’s gate

Predicts the ruin of the state.

A horse misused upon the road

Calls to heaven for human blood.

Each outcry of the hunted hare

A fibre from the brain does tear.

A skylark wounded in the wing.

A cherubim does cease to sing.

The game-cock clipt and armed for fight

Does the rising sun affright.

 

Every wolf and lion howl

Raises from hell a human soul.

The wild deer, wandering here and there,

Keeps the human soul from care.

The lamb misused breeds public strife,

And yet forgives the butchers knife.[15]

The bat that flits at close of eve

Has left the brain that won’t believe.

The owl that calls upon the night

Speaks the unbelieveres fright.

He who shall hurt the little wren

Shall never be beloved by men.

He who the ox to wrath has moved

Shall never be by woman loved

The wanton boy that kills the fly

Shall feel the spiders enmity.

He who torments the chafers sprite

Weaves a bower in endless night.

The caterpillar on the leaf

Repeats to thee thy mothers grief.

Kill not the moth nor butterfly,

For the last judgment draweth nigh.

He who shall train the horse to war

Shall never pass the polar bar.

The beggars dog and widows cat,

Feed them and thou wilt grow fat.

The gnat that sings his summers song

Poison gets from slanders tongue.

The poison of the snake and newt

Is the sweat of envys foot.

The poison of the honey bee

Is the artists jealousy.

 

The princes robes and beggars rags

Are toadstools on the misers bags.

A truth that’s told with bad intent

Beats all the lies you can invent.  [16]

It is right it should be so;

Man was made for joy and woe;

And when this we rightly know,

Thro the world we safely go.

Joy and woe are woven fine,

A clothing for the soul divine.

Under every grief and pine

Runs a joy with silken twine.

The babe is more than swaddling bands;

Throughout all these human lands

Tools were made, and born were hands,

Every farmer understands.

Every tear from every eye

Becomes a babe in eternity;

This is caught by females bright,

And returned to its own delight.

The bleat, the bark, bellow, and roar,

Are waves that beat on heavens shore.

The babe that weeps the rod beneath

Writes revenge in realms of death.

The beggars rags, fluttering in air,

Does to rags the heavens tear.

The soldier, armed with sword and gun,

Palsied strikes the summers sun.

The poor man’s farthing is worth more

Than all the gold on Africas shore.

One mite wrung from the laborer’s hands

Shall buy and sell the misers lands;

Or, if protected from on high,

Does that whole nation sell and buy.

He who mocks the infant’s faith

Shall be mocked in age and death.

He who shall teach the child to doubt

The rotting grave shall ne’er get out.

He who respects the infant’s faith

Triumphs over hell and death.

The child’s toys and the old man’s reasons

Are the fruits of the two seasons.  [17]

The questioner, who sits so sly,

Shall never know how to reply.

He who replies to words of doubt

Doth put the light of knowledge out.

The strongest poison ever known

Came from Caesar’s laurel crown.

Nought can deform the human race

Like to the armour’s iron brace.

When gold and gems adorn the plow,

To peaceful arts shall envy bow.

A riddle, or the cricket’s cry,

Is to doubt a fit reply.Â

The emmet’s inch and eagle’s mile

Make lame philosophy to smile.

He who doubts from what he sees

Will never believe, do what you please. [18]

If the sun and moon should doubt,

They’d immediately go out.

To be in a passion you good may do,

But no good if a passion is in you.

The whore and gambler, by the state

Licensed, build that nation’s fate.

The harlot’s cry from street to street

Shall weave old England’s winding-sheet.

The winner’s shout, the loser’s curse,

Dance before dead England’s hearse.

Every night and every morn

Some to misery are born,

Every morn and every night

Some are born to sweet delight.

Some are born to sweet delight,

Some are born to endless night.

We are led to believe a lie

When we see not thro’ the eye,

Which was born in a night to perish in a night,

When the soul slept in beams of light.

God appears, and God is light,

To those poor souls who dwell in night;

But does a human form display

To those who dwell in realms of day.

[1] Plato’s cave

[2] Marriage of Heaven and Hell

[3] Contrast with the poem The Tyger

[4] Description of Jesus as meek and mild.

[5] Notice the interconnectedness of the Lamb, the child, and God.

[6] Contrast to The Lamb.

[7] Alluding to the apocalypse.

[8] The tension between danger of the tyger and the innocence of the lamb.

[9] See how well Blake makes us stretch our minds when it comes to the mystery of the symmetry?

[10] An augury is a sign of omen or future change.

[11] This poem is a series of juxtaposition.

[12] To see something so big in something so small.

[13] Think of a moment that you could never tire of.

[14] What is more unnatural than a bird stripped of the power of flight?

[15] Think of how we set the lamb of god out for slaughter. Yet our carnivorous side forgives the butcher’s blade.

[16] Just think of the telling of a loved one’s secret to the public ear, and how that can create his or her worst fear.

[17] What if we wedded the child’s playfulness with the man’s reasons? A question for all seasons.

[18] A skeptic who doesn’t believe in the sense of sight, can’t see day or night.

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