Blake was writing at a time when revolutions in America and France had overturned the established governments and when people hoped or feared the same would happen in Britain. With reference to a range of poems in innocence and experience, show how Blake presents attitudes to authority.
Songs of Innocence
The Laughing Song: “When the painted birds laugh in the shade” – could be seen as artificial, authoritative figures lurking in the darkness, mocking their innocence and encouraging them to join their world “Come live and be merry, and join with me,”
Nurse’s Song: The nurse respects the opinion of her charges and gives them responsibility of their own destiny. This means that the children are happy. This may represent the people of the government and that if the government respected the opinions of the public, the public would be happier and less prone to revolution. This links with NURSE’S Song. See SOE.
The Shepherd: The shepherd in this poem seems like a benign authority figure that follows his herd, “He shall follow his sheep all the day,” rather than leads them. This suggests that Blake feels that Authorities should listen more to what people want rather than telling them what they want. The shepherd listens to what the sheep say and looks after them, and in return the sheep trusts the shepherd. This could represent how Blake feels about the government in that he thinks that if the government listens and looks after the public, they will trust them.
Songs of Experience
The Little Vagabond: Here Blake seems to be speaking out against the church authorities. He is suggesting that their lack of compassion drives people away and in order to encourage more people to attend church they should provide a warmer atmosphere, which encourages happiness and forgiveness. It also seems to criticise the Christian faith for its ambiguity. Blake questions why God does not forgive the Devil when the bible preaches forgiveness.
The Human Abstract: this poem seems to criticise the corruption of the human form by the various authorities it has to answer to. Blake suggests that people are being pushed into adhering to so many rules, that they no longer understand why they are in place and cannot leave the circle of events, which would lead to the problems being resolved. Blake hints at the fear being placed on people through the 10 commandments, which tell people how to live their lives. He seems to suggest that it is unnecessary to use fear to force people into living their lives by these rules. “He sits down with holy fears/And waters the ground with tears.” He also seems to criticise how the church calls for pity, yet does nothing to help those that are poor, “Pity would be no more/If we did not make somebody poor.”
The corruption of the city is represented by mystery, which leads to the decay of trust in authorities, “Soon spreads the dismal shade/Of Mystery over his head/And the Caterpillar and Fly/Feed on the Mystery.”
NURSE’S Song: This contrasts with Nurse’s Song. This poem, seems to suggest that with authorities wish to repress the freedom of their charges. It shows a nurse who finds in her charges merely the expression of a potential freedom she cannot bear to contemplate, and which she must repress at all costs, “Your spring and your day are wasted in play,”
THE Chimney Sweeper: Here Blake seems to criticise the government for not taking more notice of the emotions of their public. He feels that the government are supposed to take care of the public like parents, but they do not notice when they do them harm and only see their happiness. He seems to suggest that the government should make more effort to understand the feelings of the public.
Blake hated tyranny and celebrated liberty. He had mainly socialist views believing that encouraging people to help themselves was the way forward.
“Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains,” a famous quotation from Rousseau. It is part of the philosophy underpinning the French Revolution, a movement that Blake strongly supported. The Monarchy and the Church were extremely powerful during Blake’s life and he hated this power and order. He felt it was restrictive. Although Blake was religious, he had slightly different beliefs to the traditional Christian. He was a non-conformist who thought that the Ten Commandments were restrictive. He also believed in leadership, but not a leadership as tyrannical and corrupt as the Monarchy or the Church.
An example of Blake’s ideal leadership is illustrated in “The Shepherd” in “Songs of Innocence”. He explains how he thinks that if a leader does what he does properly he will be respected rather than feared. “He shall follow his sheep all the day,” he doesn’t lead he follows. The sheep are free to move wherever they like, but the shepherd will be behind them, keeping them safe and giving them support and help when it is needed, “for they know when their shepherd is nigh.”
The complete opposite of this is shown in “Holy Thursday” from “Songs of Innocence”. This poem is about a church service given for orphans and it illustrates what Blake hated about society and leadership. Unlike the sheep, the children have no freedom. They are in uniform, “In red and blue and green,” and so there is little room for individuality.
They also walk “Two by two” in organised rows. Blake even makes it sound military when he writes “Seated in companies they sit.” Again it is organised and restrictive. At the end of the same stanza Blake is insinuating that there are far too many homeless children in the world and that they need help when he writes, “thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands.” Perhaps the people being charitable are doing it to make themselves seem better. This poem, at first glance, gives the impression of happiness and kindness. However, it is in fact the opposite. The children are orphans and this in itself creates a feeling of pity. It would be better not to have to have the service at all, if the children all had homes to go to. This underlying feeling of sadness permeates much of Blake’s writing.
Another poem illustrating Blake’s ideas about the effect of man on nature is “London” from “Song of Experience”. Blake is implying that men have tried to control nature when he describes the Thames as being “Chartered” which creates an idea of it being man made. Like a lot of his poems, Blake has written in a very negative way showing his dislike of mans power. Blake wrote this poem in first person narrative making it very real and personal. In the first stanza Blake writes, “I wander through each chartered street”. Despite the fact that they are “chartered” mapped out, the word “wander” suggests that he is lost and cannot understand what is going on around him. He uses the word “chartered” twice, this repetition underlines the irony of the poem.
Although London is mapped out and organised, society is not. In the last stanza Blake illustrates the evil he sees in this, “the youthful harlot’s curse,” these prostitutes pass on their diseases, like syphilis, to the men who use them. The men cannot escape this disease, “Blasts out the new born infant’s tears,” it passes on to their children. Blake ends this stanza with an oxymoron, “marriage-hearse”, to emphasise the irony in the poem.
The Sick Rose
It seems that Negativity is a theme, occurring in much of Blake’s work. “The Sick Rose” from “Songs of Experience” is a very short poem. However, it contains a lot to be examined. The first line, “Oh rose, thou art sick,” is a statement suggesting that it’s love is going stale, the rest of the poem is, in a way explaining that statement. Through the rest of the first stanza, Blake uses negative a word at the end of each line, “worm”, “night” and “storm”, which underline the statement. The “worm” represents corruption, it is eating away at the rose.
The second stanza is filled with sexual insinuations, “thy bed,” this means simply the rose bed, but also can suggest sex. The last line, “does thy life destroy.” is saying that sexual relationships are guilt inducing.
The Garden of Love
“The Garden of Love” from “Songs of Experience”, illustrates what Blake thought of the church. It tells of him going to a church, but it was locked, he was shut out, “And the gates of the chapel were shut,”. When he is shut out, The door says, “Thou shalt not” it is negative, he thinks that churches talk about the things you can’t do rather than the things you can. Also, the Ten Commandments are what Blake hated about Christianity, this insinuates a feeling negativity towards the church as well. In the last stanza, each line begins with, “And”. This repetition is used to underline discomfort in the verse. “…priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,” this sentence creates the image of a prison, the officers checking round the cells.
The gowns they wear are “black”, this again showing darkness and discomfort. Also in the last stanza, instead of following the ABCB rhyming scheme, Blake uses AB cc dd the last two lines are: “And priests in black gown were walking their rounds, / And binding with briars my joys and desires.” This doesn’t seem to make sense, it seems discordant. This whole poems is describing how restrictive Blake finds the church.
Although Blake was rejected by his contemporaries, after his death his work has become extremely popular and well known. It interprets life in a way not known before Blake’s time, and has inspired many artists and writers. Although he may not have known it, Blake achieved a lot during his lifetime despite what many people said about him. His poems continue to have an effect on people, and the ideas and beliefs behind them still have meaning today.