The Romantic era witnessed a radical reformation in social and political thought reflected in the prolific writings of the poets during this period. Romanticism is founded on a revolt against the prescribed rules of classicism and indeed a revolt against the contemporary oppressive institutions1. William Blake was one such poet, whose immersion into the revolutionary atmosphere is clearly represented in his poetic works.
The poets of William Blake’s time employed and pioneered many techniques that rebelled against the existing classical conventions, often in an attempt to expound their political, social or religious ideas in an age that frequently sought to statutorily silence the opposing voices2. One of these acts of poetic rebellion against classicism, and one which is pivotal to Blake’s poetry, was the depiction of evocative landscapes.
While we “must be prepared for seventeen types of ambiguity”3 when considering Blake’s work, it must be recognised that much of the meaning, or meanings as is often the case, is rooted in his poignant delineation of the landscape. Indeed this multiplicity of meaning may arguably be attributed to the lyrical tableaus he paints.
This aspect of Blake’s writings is particularly relevant to the poems The Lamb, The Tyger and London all of which were published in Songs of Innocence and Experience and which predominantly involve themselves with a social discourse indicting the tyrannical institutions of state and church, as well as reflecting upon the nature of revolution. Thus these poetic protests can be seen to operate, at least in part, because of the unique Blakean landscapes. Blake, although a religious man, vehemently opposed the repressive and demoralizing nature of contemporary ecclesiastical dogma.
This attitude is articulated in The Lamb which depicts an evocative landscape that give rise to meaning. While it is impossible to definitively ascertain Blake’s intended implications, there are several plausible antinomian insights that may be gleaned through the depicted surroundings. The Lamb with its typically Romantic pastoral4 scenery generally alludes to the Bible and particularly to the Old Testaments Book of Psalms with the well known “the Lord is my shepherd”5. It accordingly draws attention to the religious undertones of the poem.
The idyllic imagery may be seen to be a reference to the heavily influential and culturally pervasive Sunday School Movement6 that existed at the time, where hymns containing similar countryside were composed in an effort to provide young children with religious instruction. This early induction into ecumenical ceremony and oppressive orthodoxy directly opposed Blake’s view whose conception of “the spiritual world [was] as familiar and as clearly delineated as it was to the mystics of the Middle Ages”7.
Thus while the scenery described draws connections between the 18th century moral hymns and The Lamb, it does not impose institutional piety but rather implicitly denies the Church by “rejoicing” in the Gods presence in the beauty of the natural world. This poems’ exultant celebration promotes the notion that God exists not in cloistered walls or inane ritual, but in every aspect of His creation and so reverence to the Creator need not involve the Church. The Experience counterpart to The Lamb is The Tyger with the compelling vistas poetically drawn no less crucial to the antinomian suggestions that may be extracted.
The poems environment may essentially be viewed as a dreamscape where the speakers’ consciousness has temporarily transcended time and is thus able to witness and question a powerful component of the Divine Creation. There has been a multitude of diverse and often conflicting interpretations articulated about this poem in the past, however one interpretation suggests that the “forests of the night” are constellations8 and therefore the poem is set in the heavens. The supernatural is again summonsed to mind with the phrase “distant deeps or skies” which reinforces the ethereal nature of the poem.
Thus once the cosmic stage is set through the landscape, the subsequent questioning may serve to act as a criticism of religious philosophy. This is particularly significant when The Tyger which contains twelve inquiries and no answers is contrasted with The Lamb in which all questions are answered. The suggestion latent in this comparative disparity is that Church, in seeking to instruct on moral law and justify the pernicious living conditions, paints an idyllic picture of God and the afterlife while disregarding the darker side of Creation.
Implicitly the Church denies the divinity of the Tyger representation, a notion which Blake contests. Instead Blake creates “the poetic equivalent of an oxymoron, an impossible combination yet one that is ultimately true to the conditions of life”9. He contends that holiness is inherent in all living things, a concept in diametric opposition to the Churches cornerstone of Original Sin. Thus the Tyger represents an imperative sine qua non which is as much a part of the Divine Creation as the Lamb.
The landscapes delineated in The Tyger and The Lamb also allow for an interpretation concerned with Blake’s reflections upon revolution, both the Industrial and the French Revolution. The industrialization of England is alluded to with the depiction of the fiery “furnace” conjuring images of the grueling and dangerous working conditions imposed in the name of progress. This vitriolic view is then further reinforced by the terms “dread” and “terror” being conjoined with the reference to instruments of trade, the “hammer”, “chain” and “anvil”.
Contrastingly, the Arcadian landscapes of The Lamb are picturesque places of joy in which the inhabitants are able to commune with God in nature. Hence the denunciation of capitalist driven mechanization becomes clear when the two poems are considered together, and the darkened picture of widespread smokestack industrialization is juxtaposed with the “delight” of the agrarian fields. Alternatively the Blakean landscapes of The Tyger may also be analysed in terms of the moral ambiguities of the French Revolution.
In this instance the fiery portrayal of the environment acts as a metaphor seeking to illustrate the revolutionary energy “consuming” France. While fire has purgative qualities, it also has destructive power, much like the Revolution. Although Blake essentially agreed with the destruction of the nobility and the desire to create a more egalitarian society, the widespread massacres meant that the human costs of achieving this ideal were high. In keeping with this incendiary revolutionary energy interpretation, the “deeps or skies” referred to may allude to the legend of Prometheus.
In this Greek myth, the fire conferred a great advantage upon man but this blessing had a price, Pandora’s Box. Further parallels may be drawn from this vein of interpretation with the portrayal of a celestial landscape at war. “When the stars threw down their spears” may allude to the counterrevolutionaries surrender or the release of their material power. Thus the emotive poetic scapes of The Tyger and The Lamb are pivotal to the various social protests suggested in these works.
The poem London, located in Songs of Experience, is again a condemnation of oppressive religious dogma and the institutions which perpetuate this tyranny of abstract moral law. This social reprimand is reflected in the stirring landscapes related in this poem. The “blackning Church” in this poem operates as metaphor where the “Chimney-sweeper” is working among the waste dirt of all systemized religion, black with sanctimonious piety and punitive zeal. Similarly the somewhat incongruous phrase “every…
Church appalls” conjures the concept that while the Church ought to be appalled by the degrading conditions thrust upon the poor, it is in fact that which is appalling. Another possible interpretation of the aforementioned line, and one that is no kinder to organized faith, suggests that the Church is becoming vacuous and blanched institution. The word appall is derived from the Latin pallidus10 meaning to become pale and thus this analysis illustrates an anemic Church devoid of the populations lifeblood; indeed a system draining the very spirit from the people.
London’s indictment of society does not end with the castigation of the Church; the government and its ineptitude to ease the peoples suffering at the hands of industrialism is also criticised. The title London, while not a descriptive landscape as such, is an important aspect of the poem, immediately evoking images of a densely populated urban area; a symbol of the progress of man. This poem however seeks to examine the human cost of this technological amelioration.
The cityscape is described in terms of “charter’d street[s]” which depending on the various definitions of ‘chartered’ gives rise to several possible expositions, all of which vilify the ‘Establishment’. One connotation of ‘chartered’ is concerned with the written document evidencing a contract or deed11. Thus the city, a place generally thought to be the property of the people, is in fact bound up in an exclusionary contract barring the lower classes from an opportunity to own assets. Alternatively, the word ‘charter’ may be interpreted as a written grant from the sovereign power conferring rights and privileges upon an individual12.
When used in this sense the adjective operating on the streetscape establishes irony. In the context of the rest of the poem, the people are shown to be dispossessed of rights and privileges; they are limited in their freedoms and thus the word comes to mean the very antilogy of its original definition. Still another possible function of the descriptive, ‘charter’ on the landscape, is characterized by a document elucidating the principles, functions and organization of a corporate body13; in other words a constitution.
This rendering of meaning suggests that the dictates of the government are so expansive and oppressive that they pervade every aspect of human life. This analysis is later reinforced in “mind-forg’d manacles” which delineates the ubiquitous nature of the moral law expounded by those in power. An additional censure against the government is conveyed when “the hapless Soldier’s sigh / Runs in blood down Palace walls”. This evocative depiction of what at first appears to be a metaphorical landscape indicates that Blake considered the blood of the fallen Soldier to be a stain upon the tyrannical men in power.
The Palace setting operates on two levels; it not only draws attention to the ruling body but also suggests that the already degraded men are arbitrarily dying because of expansionist government policy14. The ruling class, already secure in their sumptuous homes, send the lower classes to wage Imperial wars, despite the fact that the closest the poor will come to a “Palace” is when they spill their blood. While this line can be seen to work on a metaphorical level it can also occupy a literal plane as during the Romantic period there was the “constant… thunders of war”15 and so much bloodshed.
Hence, the unique and avant-garde landscapes poetically painted in London play a pivotal role to Blake’s enucleation condemning the oppressive government of his time. The Romantic poet, William Blake, operating within an atmosphere of revolutionary thought and radicalism proffers subversive political and religious commentary through his poetry. In aid of this discourse he depicts emotive landscapes, a common feature of Romantic writing, and one central to Blake’s conveyance of meaning. Indeed his written landscapes are so evocative that they cannot be approached with equanimity and thus are liable to elicit multifarious interpretations.