Blake’s Blazing Child: An Essay

December 10, 2009 § Leave a comment

The poet, painter and printmaker William Blake lived 1757 – 1827, although the greatness of both his poems and paintings was not appreciated until the late 19th century, and not fully recognized until the 20th.

Sooooo yeah, this is one of my college essays. What, you don’t love reading undergraduate work? Haha. Sooooorrry. It discusses Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Though originally produced and published separately in 1789 and 1794, they have always been published in conjunction ever since. Following are the five poems discussed, and the plates also created by Blake to accompany the poems.

Blake’s Blazing Child

When the pages of a flip-book are rapidly flicked, movement appears to occur on the pages, and a series of slightly altered drawings turns into an animation. Like the drawings in a flip-book, poetry can also be a series of snapshots conveying motion. Upon reading the poems of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, an animation occurs before the reader there too. Seen a little differently every time it appears, the image of a child is animated through the text. Its character evolves from one poem to another as it makes its path through a series of snapshots, appearing again and again a little changed, like the central figure in a flip-book.

Into the society constructed in Blake’s poems; self-content, comfortable in its drawing rooms and righteous in its pews, the author repeatedly injects and spotlights the image of a child. Blake’s child acts as an emblem of poverty and empty piety, and it blazes its light out from the poems like a slideshow in a dark room. To make use of another of Blake’s emblems, his child itself is a powerless lamb. Devoid of rights and disallowed will, it is shuffled from the glowing idyll of The Lamb, through the ironic pageantry and piety of the Holy Thursday poems to the indentured drudgery of The Chimney Sweeper poems, like lambs herded from paddock to paddock to the slaughterhouse. The effect of Blake’s reconstructing and layering of the child’s image is a series of complex and delicate contrasts, between comfort and servitude, freedom and oppression, and illusion and truth.

Optimism, joy and faith radiate from The Lamb, but the idyll depicted in this poem is not reality as Blake later constructs it in the text, it is idealism given carte blanche for a brief moment. The poem’s inclusion of stream, mead and vale intentionally suggests a rustic idyll and the child frolics with an ovine playmate, a lamb, also a child itself. Although not wealthy, the child is untouched by the squalor, toil and empty charity later implied in scenes of urban poverty. The source of the child’s exuberance is not only its rural childhood but also its undoubted faith in God. The text depicts not just a simple faith but a familiarity with religious ideas. The child rejoices in the lamb’s status as a meek and mild (2.5) symbol of Christianity, and in his own status as a child, drawing forth associations with the birth of Jesus Christ with his assertion that “He became a little child” (2.6). Although often emblematic of innocence in other poems, here Blake depicts the child as an ideal of blooming faith and rustic liberty, free from the trappings and traps of wealth, and untarnished by contact with society.  The rustic idyll of The Lamb however is an illusion; an unreality that Blake contrasts with the urban paucity of TheChimney Sweeper poems, further emphasizing the disparity existing between freedom and servitude, and illusion and disillusionment.

The child of The Chimney Sweeper in Songs of Innocence is likewise the voice of optimism and faith, an inheritance from the child of The Lamb. The effect of this inheritance, this repetition of characteristics, is the drawing of the strongest comparison between liberty and servitude that is made. The narrating child in both poems is humble and poor with a great capacity for joy, but while one is at liberty the other is apprenticed to a slave like existence of urban poverty.  ‘Sold’ (1.2) into the life of a chimney sweeper, the narrator details the privations and labours of the sweepers’ young lives. Here there are no lambs and streams but bags and brushes, cold mornings, shaved heads and soot, and only dreams of a heaven filled with rivers and grass.  Yet despite the cold and the soot and the toil, the children have hope and faith. Faith in God as their father (5.4), and the hope that ‘if all do their duty, they need not fear harm’ (6.4). The image of the child compels the reader to compare the experiences depicted in The Lamb and TheChimney Sweeper, and it also underscores the contrast between the illusions held dear in the Songs of Innocence poem and the disillusionment of the Songs of Experience chimney sweeper.

Unlike his counterpart, The Chimney Sweeper child of Songs of Experience has lost his illusions. In reconstructing the child’s image in this poem Blake not only contrasts illusion with reality, but holds up the ideals of a Christian society next to a picture of suffering and hardship enacted and supported by a Christian society. Those in positions of power and wealth, indicated by ‘father & mother’ (1.3), go ‘up to the church to pray’ (1.4) and ‘praise God & his Priest & King’ (3.3), believing in their own goodness and charity. Yet the child knows that the poor and powerless are as insignificant in the world as ‘a little black thing among the snow’ (1.1). Here the child does not cling to the hope of a heaven to come but already lives in a ‘heaven of our misery’ (3.4), a milieu formed by a society which delegates labour and squalor to the impoverished and powerless. In layering the child’s image so, Blake creates a contrast between hope and hopelessness in The Chimney Sweeper poems, but he also contrasts the charitable ideals of Christianity with society’s utilizing of the poor and disenfranchised.

The manifestations of charity are explored in the Holy Thursday poems, and in them Blake uses the image of impoverished children to compare power with powerlessness, and love with charity. In Songs of Innocence the poem appears at a quick glance to be a sentimental ode to Christian charity but its satirical qualities emerge on closer inspection. Their identities as individual people stripped away with a mass scrubbing of faces and a uniform of ‘red & blue & green’ (1.2), a multitude of impoverished children are paraded into St Paul’s Cathedral. They made into powerless ‘lambs’ (2.3) herded through the streets, and required to sing for their supper in a place of worship. It is not God however that the ‘wise guardians of the poor’ (3.3) seem to worship but their own delusion of pious charity. The child here is not loved and cared for according to Christian values but used as a pawn in a game a wealthy society plays with its vanity.

The construction of the Holy Thursday poem of Songs of Experience is less delicate and in this latter version Blake does not attempt to wryly hold a mirror up to society and let it draw its own conclusions. Instead he preaches from the pulpit of his page and the image of the child emerges again, to contrast the delusions society creates with the reality he sees. Here Blake argues that there is no real love in charity, that the path of the poor is ‘bleak & bare’ (3.2) and ‘fill’d with thorns’ (3.3). As ‘[b]abes reduced to misery’ (1.3), children housed by charitable institutions are ‘fed with cold and usurious hand’ (1.4).  No display of pompous, empty piety is to be satirized here. ‘In a rich and fruitful land’ (1.2) it is unholy and uncharitable to dispense crumbs to the caged bird instead of enabling its freedom. The image of the child is spot lit in the Holy Thursday poems to draw a contrast not just between wealth and poverty, but also between the illusions and the realities of those states.

Blake’s child is laid on over and again like bricks in the wall of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The contrasts that emerge as a result of this repetition form a protest, not only to paucity amid wealth, but to society’s, and the individual’s, capacity for self delusion. In an attempt to draw back the curtain with which child poverty was veiled, Blake’s contemporary Charles Lamb utilized The Chimney Sweeper from Songs of Innocence as ‘propaganda against social injustice’ (Keynes 136). Blake’s influence in spotlighting the injustice of child labour and neglect is trail blazing and can be seen in works such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. But the child, the central figure in this flip-book, is only one element in the makeup of our book. With the contrasts that Blake creates by reconstructing the child’s image, he poses the idea that society always turns back to the same page, always recreating and re-sustaining the divisions that allot power to the few and powerlessness to the many.

Poems from Songs of Innocence

The Lamb

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, 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.
He is meek, and He is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!

The Chimney Sweeper

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved: so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

And so he was quiet; and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight, -
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.

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.

Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;
And the angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father, and never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.

Holy Thursday

Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two & two, in red & blue & green,
Grey-headed beadles walk’d before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul’s they like Thames’ waters flow.

O what a multitude they seem’d, these flowers of London town!
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own.
The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands.

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among.
Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

Poems From Songs of Experience

The Chimney Sweeper

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying! ‘weep! weep!’ in notes of woe!
‘Where are thy father and mother? Say!’
‘They are both gone up to the church to pray.

Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

‘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 made up a heaven of our misery.’


Holy Thursday

Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

And their sun does never shine,
And their fields are bleak and bare,
And their ways are filled with thorns:
It is eternal winter there.

For where’er the sun does shine,
And where’er the rain does fall,
Babes should never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

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