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William Blake’s History Essay

In my essay I will give some information on William Blake’s history and also compare five different poems. The poems I will compare are “London”, “The Chimney Sweeper” (Songs of Innocence) with “The Chimney Sweeper” (Songs of Experience). I will also compare ‘The Lamb” with “The Tiger”. I will explain the poems first and explain what I thought the poem was about when I read it and using this knowledge I will compare.

William Blake was a profound genius to some, and a nutcase to others. A British poet, painter, visionary mystic, and engraver were some of his many occupations. Born in 1757 on November 28th William was the third of five children to a successful London hosier. William grew up in Soho, London where he was first educated at home, chiefly by his mother. From the age of 6, William Blake was amazed and intrigued by spirits; angels and ghosts. He saw and conversed with the angel Gabriel, the Virgin Mary and various other historical figures. Blake was always enclosed in his personal visions and always seemed to be in his own world. His visions and beliefs made William the man he was and the way he is portrayed to the world today.

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William was deeply influenced by gothic art and architecture and this showed in his work. After finishing his apprenticeship Blake set out to make his living as an engraver. After studies at the Royal Academy School, Blake started to produce his own watercolours and engravings for magazines.

In 1782, Blake married Catherine Boucher, the daughter of a market gardener.

Blake’s life, except for three years at Felpham where he prepared illustrations for an edition of Cowper, was spent in London. Blake’s poems were long flowing and had urges of violent energy. They were full of power and moments of tenderness. A poem thought to be like this would inevitably be associated with Blake.

Blake was not blinded by rules, but approached his subjects wholeheartedly, with a mind not distracted by current affairs. On the other hand, this made Blake an outsider. He approved of free love and sympathized with the actions of the French Revolutionaries but the reign of terror disturbed him. He believed that as all men are born equal, that there should be only one social and economic level. Royalty such as Kings and Lords were seen as being in a league with the devil as they regarded themselves as being above other men.

Blake’s paintings and engravings, notably the illustrations of his own works are realistic in representing the human anatomy and other natural forms. However, his paintings were rejected by the public as he was called a “lunatic” for his imaginative work.

Blake’s religious beliefs stemmed from a long tradition in Britain of Christian dissenters whom refused to accept the established church. This tradition was opposed to established religion, was suspicious of the monarchy and the role it played in religion and had long railed against corruption and abuse of power in the Church and Monarchy.

Blake lived during a time of intense social change. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution all happened during his lifetime as well as the vicious backlash to these events by the British establishment. The Revolutions left William Blake disturbed and unsure of what was happening.

English poet Appelbaum said, “He was liberal in politics, sensitive to the oppressive government measures of his day, and favorably inspired by the American Revolutionary War and the French Revolution” (Appelbaum v).

As “London” shows, however, Blake did not entirely approve of the measures taken to forward the causes he longed to advance: “London” refers to how the “hapless Soldier’s sigh/ runs in blood down Palace walls” Among many other events which took place during the French Revolution, this could possibly refer to the executions of the French royalty.

William Blake died on August 12, 1827, and is buried in an unmarked grave at Bunhill Fields, London.

Blake wrote Songs of Innocence and Experience in the 1790’s. The main theme of the poems came from Blake’s belief that children lost their “innocence” as they grew older and were influenced by the bad ways of the world. Blake believed that children were born innocent and pure but as they grew up, they became experienced as they were influenced by the beliefs and opinions of adults and others around them. When this happened they could no longer be considered innocent and pure.

The poems from “Songs of Innocence” were written from an innocent child’s perspective. The poems from “Songs of Experience” were written from the perspective of a more experienced person.

London (Songs of Innocence)

Songs of Innocence features the politically powerful poem “London”. Blake wandered through the streets of London and sees the streets and even the river suffering under political oppression. Everyone he passes, he sees signs of misery and moral weakness. He notices the expressions and emotions ordinary people are feeling. He doesn’t just see the misery of the sweep, the soldier, the prostitute or the baby; he also hears it in their cries, sighs and tears. He puts himself in their shoes and sees the church’s spirit blackened as the institution has allowed the fall of beliefs. He is writing about the reality of London and what the war has done to London. He does not see any life in the faces he sees as he walks, he sees faces of weakness and woe as London seems to have been taken over. It seems even the streets and the river Thames have been taken over by the rich, the poor people seem to be there for the rich people’s amusement.

For instance, he describes the Thames and the city streets as “chartered” or controlled by commercial interests. He refers to “mind-forged” manacles”; he talks of the men’s faces and their “…weakness, marks of woe”. William is becoming increasingly frightened of what the future holds as diseases are spreading and the public is becoming disillusioned about the reliability and honesty of politicians.

William Blake wants to know what happened to the society that London had, when pain and misery was not the only feeling felt. Blake feels owned, like he is a nobody, he feels he does not have the right to be him anymore. He sees the dying soldiers’ last breath as if it is blood running down the royal palace walls. Blake has never seen such an unhappy era. He talks of marriage and death, which us an oxymoron as they are both opposites to add effect. Everything natural Blake sees as owned. He has no voice to speak out, no freewill and no opinions. Even if he was to try no one would listen. Blake is furious as he sees nature as God’s creations, Blake is angry that people seem to be owning what is not theirs.

London seems to be more about society than William Blake’s life but it does have an element of his childhood and how society was portrayed to him. He sees it as a struggle for everyone and how everyone puts on a front as if their emotions are locked away. There is a division between the rich and the poor and he does not see why. He does not see why the rich get priority when there are others in need more. I think he uses his childhood to be able to express his feeling as a child and give a direct image of how the division of classes and status caused misery.

Compared to the Chimney Sweeper; London is more about society and politics and how he believes people made the wrong decisions. He because of this he has suffered and the children who are growing up will suffer too. The Chimney Sweeper is more about William Blake’s childhood and how he was fooled by the world. It is connected to London as politics and society do come in to it. Exploitation is also a theme as in The Chimney Sweeper the little chimney sweepers are being exploited and being taken advantage of and William Blake seems to be standing up for this; in London, he is standing up for the rights of everyone especially those living in poverty. He seems to want to help in both poems and make it better. He seems like a good person who wants to speak out of the terrible conditions because no-one else will. He speaks out by his writing; he says it all in his poems so it is clearer and more effective.

The poems are in comparison as they both contain elements of society, politics and the rights of a citizen; or the rights William Blake believes we should have. Both talk about people in different classes; who have different statuses and their rights and responsibilities they should have. God is associated with both of these as William Blake put his faith in to God but no one seems to be getting the life they deserve. However, in these poems, I don’t think God is the only one to blame, politicians and the government seem to of had an effect on William Blake. Enough for him to speak out.

The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Innocence)

William is writing this poem in the perspective of a young boy called Tom. It is almost like William is talking of his own childhood but covering it up by using a different name. This is how William saw life when he was younger and what he thought of what was actually happening. The child monologue of Tom uses an innocent perspective on what is it like for a young boy to be living in such conditions and politically drastic decisions.

William uses rhyming couplets to help the poem flow with ease. He talks of young boys working, being exploited and often killed because of the terrible conditions they have to face. He cleverly uses the word “weep!” By hiding sweep in it. He is using the movement the young boys had to do with the sound they made which was them weeping. I think this is a clever thing to do as it makes you think of what they had to do and how they felt about doing it. William is saying the young boys were not happy and were very scared. In the second stanza, William talks of how he actually sees Tom and what his relationship to Tom is. He talks about how little Tom Dacre cried when his head was shaved but William tries to bring light to this and make it into a joke. William says

“Hush, Tom!

Never mind it, for when your head’s bare,

You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

William is trying to make Tom feel better by joking about it, and showing how it is practical for his hair to be shaved but it is like shaving off little Tom’s purity and innocence. It seems Tom has lost his identity with his innocence.

Tom did not like the reality of the institutions and William talks of Tom having bad dreams about the other boys who sweep the chimneys all being locked up in coffins of black. Not coffins of white but coffins of black, showing a sad image of how bad he sees life. William uses the names Dick, Joe, Ned and Jack showing deep down they know their identity, but to others they are nobodies. This is an upsetting view of life for them, as they are so young and have their whole lives to live but honestly they cannot see the point of living. It is a terrible life; all he seems to talk of is death and blackness which should not be the things on a little boys mind. Tom seems to have been blackened by the chimney soot literally and in his mind he seems to be in darkness. He can not seem to see the light anymore.

There is a glimpse of hope as William writes about an angel who Tom sees in his dreams:

“And by came an angel who had a bright key,

And he opened the coffins and set them all free;

Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,

And wash in a river and shine in the sun.”

This gives the image that Tom might have just seen the light and his darkness has been replaced by hope. It is a sad image but it brings hope for Tom like a kind of heaven. To have pure innocence and the freedom in the sun. I don’t think this is just Tom’s view, I also believe this is William Blake’s view on how he wished it could have been for him when he was younger.

In the fourth stanza William writes of the little boys being naked and all white as if their innocence and purity which was taken away from them has come back. He writes how they rise above the clouds perhaps on their way to heaven and how Tom had an angel; which seems like a guardian angel who says if Tom is a good boy he will have God as his father and will never want joy. However this angel could be seen in a dark way, as the Angel of death, but Tom and William decide not to view it in this dark way and try to look to the positives.

This shows Tom looks to God for help and wisdom, he believes in his faith and one day wants to be up there with God. The sixth stanza talks of how Tom sadly awoke from his dream and rose in the dark, collected his tools and went off to work. William writes “Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm; So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.”

I think this is showing how much Tom looks up to the heavens above and at God, as he believes one day he will be up there with the almighty people. He believes if he carries on doing his job and his duties, he will be happy and he need not fear harm as God is protecting him. I think this is also what William believed. William believed he was blessed by God and everything he saw and did was for a reason. Tom I also think believes this. That God is the only one that can help. He can bring the little children’s innocence and purity back and free their souls. The poem ends in hope for Tom and perhaps William.

The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Experience)

This is very much a darker and more savage vision than that of The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Innocence). Religion plays a big part in this poem and a lot is related to God.

William talks of a neglected child and how religion has affected the child. The first stanza talks of the child looking for his mother and father, as they have gone up to the church to pray. From this first stanza, it seems the child’s parents are religious and look to God for help.

The second stanza is in the past tense and talks of the child being happy upon the heath, smiling in the winter’s snow but then being clothed in the clothes of death; which he means the dark chimney sweeping clothes that have a sense of death. William writes about how the child was forced to work and taught the notes of woe. This is a sad image, as it seems the little child used to be happy and free, but was sent to work as a chimney sweeper and there he learnt the world of sadness and fear. He found out how to cry and be sad which once upon a time he did not know what sad was. However, he has been taught to put on a front, to try and cover his sadness and woe with a happy smile so others cannot see that his condition is a sad one. It is like he is playing with death and any moment he could be gone. He feels mentally dead and inside he cannot feel anything but emptiness.

In the third stanza, the child talks of how he tries to be happy by dancing and singing; giving the impression to others he is a happy youngster who is looked after well. This is not the case though as William writes:

“And because I am happy and dance and sing,

They think they have done me no injury,

And are gone to Praise God and his Priest and King,

Who make up a heaven of our misery”.

The child is extremely depressed yet it seems no one can see it. He puts on a front to please people but deep down he has been hurt by everyone around him; his parents and God. He has been caused injury and pain and does not see the point in life. He makes himself look happy when in fact inside he is dead already. He has turned his back on God as he feels God has deserted him. He wants to know how the almighty God can bring such pain and hurt to such a young boy who has looked to him for help. God is meant to be there for help and advice, what God can make a child feel so depressed and sad that he feels on the inside he is dead already? He sees heaven as a place of miserable people, not happy but sad. Heaven was what The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Innocence) was mostly about and how he was looking forward to seeing God and going to Heaven with the angels. However, in Songs of Experience, he has totally changed his view on life and his perspective of God and the afterlife. He sees no point in living at all-there is no hope in this poem. Just the darkness of a young child.

I think this is how William Blake felt about life, after the fall of the church, how it seemed spirits were blackened by politicians and the way society changed for the worse. William is Tom and Tom is William. William used to believe in God and once looked up to him, but when William saw what was happening to society, he wondered what God would allow such bad and harsh things to happen. God is meant to be all good, no evil, but William wants to know how God can allow such terror and pain. No one is happy anymore. Why would God make everyone sad and full of woe? William wants the answers but he cannot find them so he decides the only option is to desert God like he believes God has deserted him.

The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Innocence) has a lot more hope than The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Experience) and talks of angels and Heaven as being a good place where no one is sad. William writes about God becoming Tom’s father if he does his duties. There is hope for Tom at the end of the poem and gives a good outlook on Toms life. However, The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Experience) brings a completely different perspective of life and overshadows the innocence. All hope is gone and the sadness and woe is back. God has deserted them, so why should they carry on believing in him when he only seems to be hurting them more?

The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Innocence) has been written in the view of a young child who is new to the world. He has been taught to believe that God is pure and innocent and will look after him. That is how the people of society have brought up their children and want them to remain hopeful. Yet The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Experience) has been written by a more experienced person and shows how all these hopes and dreams have been fake and are not going to happen. The reality is how can there be a God if there are so many people in pain? You get two very different sides with these two poems and two very different comparisons on someone who once had hope who knows has no hope.

Comparing The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Innocence) with The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Experience)

The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Innocence) is almost like a much lighter version of The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Experience). In Songs of Innocence, The boy who is focused on is called Tom and in the second version in Songs of Experience, the boy is unnamed, it’s as if he has lost his identity as he has grown up. In Songs of Innocence, Tom seems to be new to the world and unknown. He is fresh and is curious about the world; however, he is thrown in to a job he does not like and shown the miseries it can cause. Even though this poem shows the downside and trauma it can cause to a child; it also brings hope. Even when Tom is down it talks of angels letting all the children in despair free and fulfilling their dreams. Compared to The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Experience) it does not really contain any hope or joy. It talks of sad and dark images; there are no dreams and there is no optimism. This shows the comparison as although it is sad, it does bring a little bit of hope to Tom, as he is young he has dreams that it will be better as time goes on.

However, it seems Songs of Experience focuses on the dark side of life basically portraying the image of insecurity and misery. Songs of Experience talks of churches and people going to pray to make the reader think of happy thoughts but what Blake is really trying to say is that God is not all that he seems. If God was so great, why are people in poverty? Why are people dieing and put in these situations? He used to believe that God was there but as he’s grown up he’s realised that God has not helped him and as time has gone on he has lost his faith. This perhaps reflects William Blake’s view on how on he was opposed to the monarchy and the church.

These two poems in comparison show William Blake’s faith in God beginning and end. It shows his journey of why he has to come to the point where he no longer feels God is important and will support him. This is a sad journey and he has used a character called Tom; who I think represents William Blake as a child to portray this. He want it to be known how he feels but I think for some unknown reason he uses Tom instead of the word “I” because he wishes to be unknown, religion has seriously affected him and in extreme words damages him. He wants people to realise and understand what he has been through yet he cannot bring himself to be direct as in those days, the monarchy and church had extreme effects on society. To speak out against it would almost be a sin itself.

William Blake also uses the words “I was…” in The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Experience) as if it is something he used to be, used to believe in. He is writing about the past and he wishes it to remain the past, whereas The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Innocence) talks of the present and the hopes for the future so there is a comparison in tenses.

The Chimney Sweeper (Songs of Experience) is also a lot shorter than Songs of Innocence. There are only three stanzas whereas Songs of Innocence has six. This perhaps shows that as William Blake has lost his faith in God, he has also lost the words to describe this. There is nothing left for him to write about God and he shows this by only writing three verses.

The Lamb

The Lamb is a sweet and innocent poem that portrays the image of the world being beautiful and pure. It is all very sweet and touching. William writes about a lamb; who is an image of happiness and feeling content. The Lamb is good and brings no evil. William is saying that God can and has the ability to make beautiful creatures. The Lamb I think symbolizes the young and the less experienced as everything seems perfect and nothing can go wrong. William sees the Lamb as an Angel of God and I think this is how he saw God when he was young. He saw God as a wonderful and pure thing that he could always rely on. This is the image portrayed to children. William talks of Gods blessing. He asks the question “Dost thou know who made thee”? and at the end of the poem he answers the question by saying “Little Lamb God bless thee”. Meaning God made the Lamb so perfect.

The Tiger

The Tiger is almost the complete opposite to The Lamb. It raises profound questions but does not finally answer them, unlike the Lamb. As in the Lamb, it was showing purity and innocence, yet the Tiger seems to show the hatred and terror of God. It shows the way that life can start so simply everything being perfect, but then turn sour when you least expect it.

In the first stanza, William writes about an evil tiger that is feared by everyone. He writes that there is no creature or human that dare touch or go near the mighty tiger. God has created something evil that seems to have shocked William. God created the beautiful lamb with its innocence and purity yet God has created something so evil and devilish. So unlike him. William is trying to say that life seems so perfect at first with everything going right, well you think it is going well because you don’t know better because you are not experienced, but as you become more experienced you recognise that everything that seemed good wasn’t. It is like you have been fooled for most of your life believing in something that is not what it seems in Williams case God.

In the fifth stanza William writes:

“When the stars threw down their spears,

And water’d heaven with their tears,

Did he smile His work to see?

Did he who made the lamb make thee?”

William is writing that he feels God felt the need to balance the beautiful and innocent creatures with evil creatures. You need the balance of good and evil for the world to go round but do you need this much evil? This much hurt and pain? William wants to know whether the person who made such a sweet and wonderful creature could make such an evil horrible creature. Life cannot just be a sweet lovely experience; you need to have scary experiences to balance it out. Life cannot be too nice so some evil is needed but it depends on how much.

Comparing The Lamb and The Tiger:

The Tiger and The Lamb are the same but opposites. Opposites attract and together the Lamb and the Tiger make life. For nature to have harmony, there has to be a natural balance. William is showing the Tiger represents all the things the lamb is not, and the Lamb represents all the things the Tiger isn’t.

William feels betrayed, he has studied a faith for most of his life that he believed in, but he feels he has been proved wrong. God isn’t evil but that’s all William can see in front of him. He feels he has been fooled all of his life until he became more experienced and started thinking for himself to work out life isn’t all “lovey dovey.”

The Lamb talks of the purity and sweetness of God hence the Lamb, but in the Tiger, William has come to his own conclusion that God has created evil when he is not supposed to do so. He feels God has taken away his innocence so he will take away his belief in God.

The comparison between The Lamb and The Tiger cannot be more apparent. They are totally different animals that portray different images to the world. William Blake knew this and just knowing the titles of the poems gives you an idea of the differences. William Blake I think wanted the differences to be obvious to others so they can really understand how he has lost his faith and why.

The Lamb contains two stanzas that are quite long but happy. It is set out as if it is a nursery rhyme and should be spoken joyfully. You do not even have to read it to recognise this yet in The Tiger there are six stanzas set out like text in a book. It looks a bit duller compared to The Lamb and is definitely not set out as a nursery rhyme. There are a lot more descriptive words than in The Lamb as The Lamb contains more simple rhyming words which are easy to say, making the poem flow with ease possible portraying the “easy” side of life.

The Tiger in comparison is showing the “hard” side of life and how not everything is what it seems. The Lamb seems to be welcomed with open arms yet The Tiger seems to be feared. This poem shows how God created evil compared to the pure, innocent Lamb God also made. The question William Blake wants to know is what God can create evil…if he is meant to be all good? It is like people have been fooled and he is the only one that recognises this.

The symmetry of the two animals is shown as a love and hate relationship between God. The Tiger poem is longer and more meaningful than The Lamb poem and I think this is because William Blake wants to express what he has seen and learnt whilst growing up; it is an experienced piece of writing and much longer as he has more to comment on. The Lamb represents the youth and how when young you are oblivious to the world and its meaning yet as you grow up it becomes noticeable and there are a lot of things you find out which are expressed in The Tiger.

Comparing The Chimney Sweeper with The Lamb & The Tiger

The Chimney sweeper shows how a little boy (Tom) views the world and his society. He talks of hope and happy things until he realises as he becomes more experienced that life isn’t how it seems. You see the poem in the eyes of a chimney sweeper who is doing a dangerous job and who does not understand society. This chimney sweeper once looked to God for hope until he realised that there wasn’t any. When he realised this he turned his back on God and lost the will to live. In the Lamb and the Tiger, William writes about a beautiful creature that has been created so perfect and sweet but then he talks of the evil tiger who is feared by most. This shows how once he thought life was like the Lamb, full of love and innocence yet as he became older he comes to terms with the fact God created both good and evil and he can’t accept this. To him for most of his life, God was great. Nothing could harm him if God was there but to him, this was all fake. This was not the reality he was in.

Both poems are focused on society and God. They both result in William coming to terms that all is not what it seemed. Tom is William Blake when he was younger and is open about his feelings and his religion. The Lamb and the Tiger symbolise William when he is older and how he feels. How society has affected his religion dramatically. I think it is sad that William seems to have lost all belief in the one thing that kept him sane for a while. William Blake wants a God that is pure and innocent, not a touch of evil. Evil is not God, evil is for the devil. William couldn’t have what he wanted as he saw a God that creates good and bad and didn’t see the point in it so he turned his back on religion and I think all these poems really clearly show this and how perhaps political decisions caused a backlash to him.

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