How does Blake comment on the society and the institutions of his time through “Songs of Experience” and “Songs of Innocence”?
Growing up, William Blake was not taught how to read or write so it is surprising that he managed to write poetry, let alone poetry that would have an impact on British society, even to this very day.
His views on society’s practices of which he represents in the poem, “London”, take a very negative tone:
“In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear.”
This quote highlights the negative impact that society’s practices have on society as a whole. These unknown but inherently immoral practices can be traced back to and, according to Blake, blamed on two well known institutions; The Church and the Monarchy, as expressed in the third paragraph:
“How the chimney-sweeper’s cry,
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh,
Runs in blood down the palace walls.”
Blake is seen here to strongly express himself by directly accusing the Monarchy and the Church; two of the most powerful authorities of his time, for the repulsive practices being carried through under their noses, such as child labour and child prostitution, “the youthful Harlot’s curse” . Blake brings to light both the monarchy’s and the church’s poor image of supposed caring authority figures for people to turn to at times of need.
The Church also has a poor moral image in “The Garden of Love”. The Church seems to withdraw its policy of freedom and salvation when Blake depicts the appearance of the chapel:
“And the gates of this chapel were shut
And “though shall not” writ over the door.”
This gives the impression that Blake saw the church to be restricting and oppressive. By having the gates shut, the chapel automatically appears uninviting.
The Ten Commandments Blake describes as being written on the gates, contains more negative suggestion than positive, which increases the depression of expression that the church already imposes.
“The Garden Of Love” also contains comparisons between life and death:
“And tombstones where flowers should be.”
This quote brings to light the fact that the Church is contradicting what it supposedly stands for; bringer of life, freedom and salvation. Blake indicates that all the chapel was bringing to “The Garden Of Love” is death and restriction. Blake also utilizes the narrator of the poem to reflect upon how the innocence of youth is harshly affected by powerful institutions of Blake’s time:
“And binding with briars my joys and desires”
By demonstrating how the church is depressing the positive feelings that the people around it, Blake displays The Church as, again, not what it should be.
Blake takes these negative images of the Catholic Church to their extremes in “Little Boy Lost”. The Church are shown to restrict free thought, even in curious children, let alone positive feelings:
“The priest sat by and heard the child;
In trembling zeal he seized his hair.”
This quote illustrates a priest, fond of his authoritve power, punishing an innocent boy for questioning his love for God. As many of Blake’s poems do, “Little Boy Lost” implies that the institution is corrupt from the inside-out.
The fact that “all admired his priestly care” when taking care of the child suggests to the reader that regular church- goers have been sucked into the Church’s twisted ways of thinking. Even the innocent boy’s own parents are upset that their own son had ‘betrayed’ the church:
“The weeping child could not be heard,
The weeping parents wept.”
This quote presents the fact that the parent’s own salvation is much more important to them an the Catholic Church than their child’s welfare.
Blake also brings this outlook on the Church and general parenting to light in “The Chimney-Sweeper”
The Church encourages the mother and father’s spiritual wellbeing with God to be higher in their priorities than their own son’s general well-being:
“Where are thy mother and father? Say!
They are both gone up to the church to pray.”
The fact that the small boy has been employed into chimney-sweeping at such a young age that he is still unable to speak properly, “Weep! Weep!”, shows that, in Blake’s time, the church had an extremely poor moral stance against child labour, adding to the ever-growing list of faults that Blake highlights in many of his poems.
On the other hand, “The Lamb” takes a very positive outlook on Christianity. The lamb in question is illustrated as innocent and lovable:
“He is meek,
He is mild,
He became a little child.”
Blake seems to represent the lamb as a metaphor for the church; pure and innocent. This contradicts many of Blake’s poems, which makes “The Lamb” seem very bittersweet, as though it is too good to be true. This represents the new ‘freedom of thought’ policies and kind and caring persona the Catholic Church had taken on during the writing of Blake’s latter collection of poems, “Songs of Innocence”, the collection which “The Lamb” belongs to.
An example of a directly contradicting poem to “The Lamb” is “The Tyger”. The poem’s structure represents the physical nature of ‘The Tyger’ by using two rhyming couplets in every verse:
“Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright,
In the forest of the night.”
By restricting the poem to seven syllables a line and its strict rhyming pattern, Blake makes “The Tyger” seem more mature compared to “The Lamb”, as though it has had more experience in the harsh world and the moral evils that inhibit it.
Blake uses ‘The Tyger’ as a metaphor for the upcoming Industrial Revolution;
“What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?”
As ‘The Tyger’ represents the Industrial Revolution, This quote seems to question ‘The Tyger’s’ existence and its origin.
As, in Blake’s era, the Industrial Revolution had only just begun and, yet, was developing quickly and fast taking over the globe, Blake uses this metaphor in order to put across his lack of understanding of where the Industry will be and what it will become in the future.
To conclude, It is clear in the majority of William Blake’s poetry that he sensed there was a lack of integrity in Victorian society and its institutions as well as a lack of care and confidence in the next generation. Sadly, the morals and critiques that Blake imparted in “Songs of Experience” and his reflections on how life should be in “Songs of Innocence” were not taken to heart till decades after his death, yet his poems are still read in a new light to this day.