|Poems by William Blake - study guide|
The notes which follow are intended for study and revision of a selection of Blake's poems.
About the poet
William Blake was born on 28 November 1757, and died on 12 August 1827. He spent his life largely in London, save for the years 1800 to 1803, when he lived in a cottage at Felpham, near the seaside town of Bognor, in Sussex. In 1767 he began to attend Henry Pars's drawing school in the Strand. At the age of fifteen, Blake was apprenticed to an engraver, making plates from which pictures for books were printed. He later went to the Royal Academy, and at 22, he was employed as an engraver to a bookseller and publisher. When he was nearly 25, Blake married Catherine Bouchier. They had no children but were happily married for almost 45 years. In 1784, a year after he published his first volume of poems, Blake set up his own engraving business.
Many of Blake's best poems are found in two collections: Songs of Innocence (1789) to which was added, in 1794, the Songs of Experience (unlike the earlier work, never published on its own). The complete 1794 collection was called Songs of Innocence and Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. Broadly speaking the collections look at human nature and society in optimistic and pessimistic terms, respectively - and Blake thinks that you need both sides to see the whole truth.
Blake had very firm ideas about how his poems should appear. Although spelling was not as standardised in print as it is today, Blake was writing some time after the publication of Dr. Johnson's authoritative Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Many of Blake's spellings which seem odd or old-fashioned to us, must have struck his readers, too, as quaint. Blake similarly used non-standard forms of punctuation, especially using the ampersand (&) in place of the word "and" (today this is only normal in business names). In keeping with his profession, Blake did not print his poems in type, but engraved them (like handwriting) on an illustrated background. The printed copies were then coloured by hand: Blake was an artist in words and pictures. In some modern editions for students (such as the AQA Anthology, used by people taking GCSE exams in England), the spelling and punctuation have been modernised in standard forms; type replaces handwriting and no pictures appear - you should look at copies of the poems as Blake produced them, in order to decide whether this is a good or bad thing.
The Little Boy Lost and The Little Boy Found
Both of these poems appear (together) in Songs of Innocence. The titles more or less tell the reader what the poems are about. In the first, a father leaves behind his tearful child in the dark. In the second, as the child cries, God appears, kisses the child and restores him to his mother who has been crying and looking for the boy. In The Songs of Experience are two (very different) poems called A Little BOY Lost and A Little GIRL Lost. They are both horrible, especially the former, in which a priest accuses a boy of blasphemy (for not showing God enough love), puts him in an "iron chair" and burns him to death "in a holy place" where "many had been burned before", while his parents look on and weep.
The poems in detail
The three human characters are not at all specific people but clearly representative or universal types - like people in the parables of Jesus. (This is true of all the people we meet in The Songs of Innocence and Experience, though sometimes there are distinguishing features as with the children in The Little Black Boy or The Chimney Sweeper, where the sweep is called Tom Dacre.) In this poem, God appears, too but not as an abstract idea (a view of God that Blake hated). He is like the God of the Book of Genesis (who walks in the Garden of Eden and shuts up Noah in the Ark).
The first half of The Little Boy Lost is a cry of alarm from the child - he asks where his father is going, tells him to slow down and asks the father to speak, or else his "little boy" will be lost. Instead of the father's expected reply comes the shocking discovery - where the reader shares the child's horror - that the father is gone, and it is dark night. The dew is forming and the boy is in a deep mire (muddy or marshy ground). As the boy cries, the mist goes away - perhaps a hint that something good will happen.
The reader is not very alarmed - for two reasons.
In The Little Boy Found we see another hopeful sign - the boy is being guided by some kind of "wandering light". It may belong to the father who has left him, or may suggest (in the word "led") a guardian angel or spirit. As the boy cries, God comes to his aid - in white, which suggests his goodness. God is also "like his father", which may mean he looks like the father who earlier deserted the boy, or may suggest the idea that God is the boy's (and everyone's) real father - more so than any earthly parent.
The father, who leaves the boy, is contrasted with the anxious mother who goes in search of him, "pale" with sorrow and weeping (though Blake may mean "weeping" to refer to the "little boy"). God brings the child back to his mother. Attentive readers will see that she has no hope of finding the boy without God's help. Why? Because she has been looking in the wrong place - the "lonely dale" (a valley), while the boy has been in a marsh ("mire") or "fen". (Unless Blake means us to understand that the fen is in the valley - which is possible.)
The poems also appeal to one of our most basic fears - or rather two:
(This is amplified by real-life reports of abductions and violence to children - and is one of the most profound and terrifying fears we ever face. For many readers, The Little Boy Lost will be far scarier than any conventional horror story or film.)
The poet's method
Blake's narratives, simply as stories, are very naïve and childlike. But they tell of profound and universal experiences or ideas. We worry about children who really get lost - and any young child has fears (perhaps made stronger by parents' warnings) of being lost or separated from mother or father.
The two poems thus form a narrative in two parts - being lost and being found. It also contrasts the way that human parents fail with God's power and love in caring for children. There is a very similar but much more detailed story in Chapter 7 of The Wind in the Willows ("The Piper at the Gates of Dawn") where little Portly the otter is lost but restored to his worried parents with the help of the animals' god, Pan.
Blake does not use metaphors - where something in the poem represents some other thing, usually an abstraction, in a one-to-one way. Rather he uses symbols - and leaves it to the reader to decide what they mean. So we may understand God in the poem as being more or less the same as in Genesis, or, very differently, as the divine element in good people who look after children. And we may see the poem as being about a real child getting lost in a fen, or about the way in which generally, we are unsure about the world and our place in it.
The poems are very short - each has only two stanzas, and the pair together have a mere 16 lines. Although the narrative seems to be stripped down to its essentials, there is room for some suggestive details - so we read
With this poet, we can never quite be sure how far these things are intentional and how far they are simply suggested by the need for a rhyme - but it is wiser to suppose that Blake means exactly what he says (or writes) in the Songs of Innocence and Experience.
Blake was regarded in his time as very strange, but many of his ideas make sense to the modern reader. When this poem was written it was most unusual for writers to show interest in wild animals. People did not have access to wildlife documentaries on television, as we do today: exotic animals might be seen in circuses and zoos, but tigers would be a rarity, perhaps turning up stuffed or as rugs (this was to become very common in the 19th century). Just as today the tiger is a symbol of (endangered) wildlife, so for Blake, the animal is important as a symbol - but of what? One clue is to be found in the comparison with The Lamb (see the next poem, and the fifth stanza of this one). Blake's images defy simple explanation: we cannot be certain what he wants us to think the tiger represents, but something of the majesty and power of God's creation in the natural world seems to be present.
Blake's spelling in the title (The Tyger) at once suggests the exotic or alien quality of the beast. The memorable opening couplet (pair of rhyming lines) points to the contrast of the dark "forest of the night" (which suggests an unknown and hostile place) and the intense "burning" brightness of the tiger's colouring: Blake writes here with a painter's eye.
The questions that follow are directed at the tiger, though they are as much questions for the reader. They are of the kind sometimes called rhetorical (frequently used in public speaking, rhetoric in Greek) because no answer is given. However, these are questions to which the answer is far from obvious. For example, the answer to the first question might be "God's" ("immortal hand or eye"), but Blake is asking not so much "whose?" as "what kind of?" We are challenged to imagine someone or something so powerful as to be able to create this animal. The idea that the tiger is made by someone with hands and eyes suggests the stories in the Biblical book of Genesis, where God walks in the Garden of Eden and shuts Noah in his ark. It is again the painter and engraver who observes the complexity of the tiger's markings in their "fearful symmetry". The sensitive human artist is awe-struck by the divine artistry.
Blake asks where the fire in the tiger's eyes originates. It is as if some utterly daring person has seized this fire and given it to the tiger (as, in Greek myth, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to men). The poet is amazed at the complexity of the tiger's inner workings ("the sinews of thy heart"), at the greater power that set the heart beating, and wonders how the animal's brain was forged: "What the hammer...in what furnace...what the anvil?"
The penultimate (last but one) stanza takes us back to Genesis and the creation story there: on each of the six days (He rested on the seventh) God looked at His work and "saw that it was good". God is represented as being pleased with His creation, but Blake wonders whether this can be true of the tiger. If so, it is not easy to see how the same creator should have made The Lamb. The poem appropriately ends, apparently with the same question with which it started, but the change of verb from "could" to "dare" makes it even more forceful.
This poem is not so much about the tiger as it really is, or as a zoologist might present it to us; it is the Tyger, as it appears to the eye of the beholder. Blake imagines the tiger as the embodiment of God's power in creation: the animal is terrifying in its beauty, strength, complexity and vitality.
In The Tyger Blake points to the contrast between these two animals: the tiger is fierce, active, predatory, while The Lamb is meek, vulnerable and harmless. In the first stanza Blake, as in The Tyger, asks questions, and these are again directed to the animal, although the reader has less difficulty guessing the answer, which the poet in any case gives in the second stanza. The picture of The Lamb's feeding "by the stream and o'er the mead" (=meadow) is a beautiful one, which suggests God's kindness in creation, and has an echo of similar descriptions in the Old Testament book of Psalms (especially Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want") and the parables of Jesus.
In the second stanza, Blake reminds The Lamb, and us, that the God who made The Lamb, also is like The Lamb. As well as becoming a child (like the speaker of the poem) Jesus became known as The Lamb of God: Jesus was crucified during the Feast of the Passover (celebrating the Jews' escape from Egypt) when lambs were slaughtered in the temple at Jerusalem. This was believed to take away the sins of the people who took part in the feast. So when Jesus was killed, for the sins of all people, according to the Christian faith, He came to be called The Lamb of God. Although this is an image mainly of meekness and self-sacrifice, in the last book of the Bible (Revelation) Jesus appears as a Lamb with divine powers, who defeats the Anti-Christ and saves mankind. Blake's poem seems to be mainly about God's love shown in his care for The Lamb and the child and about the apparent paradox, that God became both child and Lamb in coming, as Jesus, into the world.
The Tyger and The Lamb go well together, because in them, Blake examines different, almost opposite or contradictory, ideas about the natural world, its creatures and their Creator. How do you see the two animals depicted? What images do you find interesting, and what do they tell you?
The 1794 collection, remember, was called Songs of Innocence and Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul: explain how these poems show "contrary states".
How, in these two poems, does Blake explore different ideas about God and nature? Which do you find more appealing (if either) and why?
Both poems use simple rhymes and regular metre. Does this mean the ideas in the poems are simple, too? Give reasons for your answer.
A useful exercise here (as with all the poems) is to present the poems either as Blake did (this will require some research), or as you imagine he might have done. That is to say, you should use a handwriting style which seems appropriate, and illustrate/decorate the background or surrounding area. You could use this copy for familiarising yourself with the poems. You might like to use Blake's original spelling and punctuation (your teacher should be able to give you a copy of this).
In this poem and the two which follow it, a central metaphor explains a truth of human nature. A Poison Tree shares with The Human Abstract the image of a tree as it grows, while in London the image is of manacles: all of these Songs of Experience show the dark side of human nature. A Poison Tree tells how anger can be dispelled by goodwill or nurtured to become a deadly poison. It is appropriate that poems touching on Biblical themes should be parables, not unlike those of Jesus, in which a spiritual or abstract meaning is expressed in a vivid, picturesque story.
The opening stanza is among the most deceptively simple and memorable of all Blake's lyrics: the form of each couplet is grammatically the same, but substituting four words wholly alters the meaning, from the ending of anger with the "friend" to the continuing anger with the "foe".
Blake does not tell us what is growing (although we may guess this to be the tree of the title) but it is evidently a plant of some kind: the real "fears" and "tears" are what metaphorically water the plant (encourage his hatred?), and "smiles" and "deceitful wiles" are as the sunshine which makes it grow: the reader at once grasps the simple natural metaphor, and the deep psychological truth it expresses. At length the tree grows to bear a single fruit, which the "foe" wants because he supposes the speaker to value it: "And he knew that it was mine". The sequel is shocking: the foe steals the apple and eats it, not knowing that it is poisonous: "In the morning glad I see/My foe outstretched beneath the tree". As we remember that this is a metaphor we realise that literal murder (of the body) is not what Blake describes but some profound spiritual, or (as we would now say) psychological harm is meant.
This is a horrible poem because it depicts with appalling honesty the hatred of which man is capable and the cunning with which we can conceal our anger. The anger depicted here is not the anger we call the heat of the moment, but "wrath", one of the seven deadly sins, a brooding, festering desire to get even at all costs.
The apple of the third stanza reminds us of the story of Adam and Eve. In the biblical account, God forbids the couple to eat the fruit of "the tree of knowledge", but this fruit is commonly represented as an apple (this detail appears in mediaeval carols and in Milton's poem, Paradise Lost). Another apple which caused trouble was the golden apple from the garden of the Hesperides, which Paris, prince of Troy, gave to Aphrodite, goddess of love, in preference to Athena and Hera. As a symbol of irresistible temptation, the apple is deeply convincing.
The enemy is almost as wily as the speaker, waiting until a night which has "veiled the pole". This "pole" could mean simply the hemisphere which surrounds the pole or, some critics suggest, the Pole Star: a very bright star used for navigation; if this is what Blake means then a night which "veiled the pole" (with fog, say) would be exceptionally black. The metaphor suggests the darkness, the inscrutable mystery of evil: we cannot see it at work, but we can see its results later. Perhaps, though, the most shocking word in the poem is "glad". This is not the innocent gladness of a clear conscience, but the almost diabolical self-satisfaction of the poisoner. The triumphal gloating is miles away from the simple reconciliation of the poem's opening couplet. The poem perfectly unites the simple extended image, and the deep human truth it illustrates.
The title and the last stanza of this poem make it clear that the tree described here is a symbol of an "abstract" quality found in "the human brain". This is less easy to understand than the evil of anger, which Blake explains in A Poison Tree, but again the poet is aware of the "Two Contrary States of the Human Soul" and the "Mystery" (Stanza 4) of the tree which "bears the fruit of deceit", and in which the Raven, the omen of death, "his nest has made".
The poem's opening reminds us of Jesus words to Judas Iscariot (John's Gospel, Chapter 12, verse 8): "the poor always ye have with you". What was meant by Jesus as a shrewd comment on poverty (that it will never wholly go away) has been taken by some readers of the gospels to be a kind of universal law: that there must be losers if there are also to be winners, and Blake states this idea in his opening couplet: that "pity" (compassion, a good thing) depends on there being some people who are "poor". The key word here is "make" - as if we force people into poverty so that they can receive our "pity". Instead of a fair society, the rich give handouts to the poor, and feel smug about doing so. In the same way, happiness is not allowed to be universal, or no-one would need "Mercy". Blake may be merely describing the way things are. If he is suggesting how things ought to be, then he does so ironically: he certainly does not approve of this inequality. The ideas in this first stanza are clearly relevant to our own times, but would have been thought very shocking in Blake's time, when British society was organised on principles of clear inequality.
In the four central stanzas, Blake's argument becomes less clear, but a number of things are worthy of note: that "peace", usually a good thing, may be the result of "mutual fear" (Blake anticipates in a single line the modern idea of deterrence - that peace is achieved by would-be enemies living in fear of each other), and how, in "The Human Abstract", good things like "holy fears", "tears" and "Humility", are mixed up with wickedness - "mutual fear", "the selfish loves" and "cruelty" - in "the dismal shade/Of Mystery". Cruelty, as he "knits a snare" or "spreads his baits" is likened to a pitiless hunter (snares and baits would be used to catch small game; "his" suggests a person, not an abstraction) while the idea of sickness or corruption is suggested by the "Catterpiller and Fly" which "Feed on the (tree of) Mystery". As in A Poison Tree there is attractive fruit, though we do not know who is to eat it. The "thickest shade", where the "Raven" nests, suggests the secrecy and obscurity of the "Human Abstract" here described.
The final stanza gives us the key to the poem: the "Gods" sought "in vain" in the natural world for such a tree, but the poet knows it is found "in the Human Brain" - that its existence is real, but metaphorical, rather than literal. The tree and its fruit suggest particularly the tree, in Genesis, of the knowledge of good and evil: as man has eaten the fruit of this tree, so he has gained this forbidden knowledge, which is particularly the subject of the poem's first two stanzas.
This poem is hard to understand in its entirety, but rewards close study. It contains some striking images, and the opening stanza is a challenging statement of the problems faced by those who want to create a fair society - or, perhaps, of the reasons why a fair society will never be realised. The poem obviously has much in common with A Poison Tree in Blake's choice of central metaphor, and in how this image is developed to symbolise, in complex ways, truths about human nature which would be less clear and interesting if explained in abstract terms.
This is a poem which makes sense to the modern reader, as it exposes the gulf between those in power and the misery of poor people. The picture of the city as a place of nightmare is common in the 20th century, but is perhaps surprising to find in such an early text as this. We have to wait for the novels of Dickens and James Thomson's Victorian poem The City of Dreadful Night, before we find such a grim view of the city reappearing.
Although there are several details which we need to note, we should begin with the central metaphor of this poem, the "mind-forg'd manacles" of the second stanza. Once more a vivid symbol explains a deep human truth. The image of the forge appears in The Tyger (stanza 4). Here Blake imagines the mind as a forge where "manacles" are made. "Manacles" (for the hands - French les mains) and shackles for the legs, would be seen on convicts, perhaps passing along the streets on their way to prison or, commonly in London in Blake's time, on their way to ships, for transportation to Australia. For Blake and his readers, the image is a very striking and contemporary one: they will have seen "manacles" and will view them with horror. The image is also an allusion (reference, loose quotation) to an even more famous statement. In 1762, some thirty years before Blake wrote London, the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract: "Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains". Blake agrees with Rousseau that man's lack of freedom, his "manacles" are "mind-forg'd" - they come from the ideas and outlook imposed on us by external authority.
We see this beautifully in the poem's opening: it is a matter of fact that charters were granted to powerful people to control the streets of London and even the river. It is absurd that the streets are "chartered" (not free to ordinary people) but blatantly so in the case of the mighty river, which cannot really be controlled by the passing of a law. Blake writes ironically of "the chartered Thames". The "weakness" and the "woe" (a strong word in 1794; =misery) of every person is plain to see "in every face", as in their cries, whether of adults or babies (stanza 2).
Blake gives us three powerful examples of this "weakness" and "woe", starting with the chimney-sweep. As the church building is literally "black'ning" with smoke from the chimneys, so the church as an organisation, which should help the poor, is blackened, metaphorically, with shame at its failure to give that help. The church should be appalled, as the poet evidently is, by the cry of the "chimney-sweeper". (There is a pun here: "appals" means "goes pale", as with fear, but these churches are going black, with smoke and soot.)
The second image, of the "hapless" (unfortunate) soldier is topical: the poem was written shortly after the start of the French Revolution: this was so bloody an uprising that the figure of speech called hyperbole (=exaggeration) was often used, as blood was said to be running down the walls. Blake shows how the unhappiness of the English soldier could, if its causes were ignored, lead to similar bloodshed here.
But the last image is the most shocking to Blake, as to us: the cry of the child-prostitute is the truth behind respectable ideas of marriage. New birth is no happy event but continues the cycle of misery, and the wedding carriage is seen as a hearse, leading to a kind of death (of innocence? of happiness?). The word "plagues" here suggests the sexually transmitted diseases which the "youthful harlot" would contract and pass on to others (men married for convenience but with no desire for their wives), giving her cursing words real destructive power.
Each poem is (or should be) unique, but many poems can be explained in terms of certain elements or conventions which are commonly used: in discussing a poem, you might consider its subject (what it is obviously about), its theme (what it is about at a deeper level, important ideas), its argument (how the ideas are organised), its structure and form (use of stanzas, rhyme, metre and so on), its key images (word-pictures, symbols, metaphors and similes) and any other effects (like sound-effects, puns, allusions). If there is not much to say on one of these, don't worry: there will always be something worth saying on some of them, if the poem is any good. These different categories are now explained in more detail. In your writing they do not need sub-headings, but should normally appear in different paragraphs.
Although you could consider these apart, in all five of the poems there is a clear connection between the outward subjects and the deeper truths they express. Thus The Tyger and The Lamb are apparently about a wild and a tame animal, but are really about God's power in creation or the power of the natural world and the nature of God as shown in Jesus. A Poison Tree and The Human Abstract seem to be about mysterious trees with dangerous fruit, but really tell of the "contrary states of the human soul", while London is obviously about the way some people live unhappy lives but at a deeper level is about how "every" person is miserable.
In The Tyger and The Lamb the argument takes the form of a conversation with the animal, to which many questions are addressed (in The Lamb Blake gives the answers). A Poison Tree and The Human Abstract tell short stories, while London appears to describe a personal experience of walking "thro' midnight streets", expressed in terms of three encounters. The Lamb has a simple form which reflects the structure: one longish stanza of questions, and an equally long stanza of answers. In all the other poems (four or six) four-line stanzas are used to carry the argument. These are in rhyming couplets, except for London with its more elaborate ABAB rhyme-scheme.
In discussing Blake's poetry it is virtually impossible not to spot what the images are but sometimes almost impossible to say what they mean! In three of the poems, the central image appears in the title; in The Human Abstract the title gives the meaning of the central image, while in London the key image is found in the second stanza. The other important details (of extended metaphors) like the "apple" or the raven's "nest" or related images, like "the chartered Thames" or "the marriage hearse" are discussed in the detailed commentaries above.
We might also comment on where these images come from. Blake's poems are full of references to nature, but these are not made from direct observation as a naturalist or a poet like Wordsworth makes them: rather nature is understood as in a book for children or in the Bible: we find exotic, fiery tigers, innocent, woolly lambs, magical trees bearing deadly fruit and sinister caterpillars and ravens. The town, which Blake does know, is depicted essentially realistically in London. All of the poems draw on the Bible for their images (in London this is less obvious, but the "harlot" and the "new-born infant" can both be found in the Bible).
Reading these poems might lead you to think that Blake had a very narrow vocabulary, but this is not the case. He makes deliberate repeated use not only of a given word, but a given (often unoriginal) rhyming pair, like "fears" and "tears" (find this twice; then find "spears" and "tears", and "hear" and "tear"). In these poems Blake is striving for simplicity (which is why they are Songs). He writes the poems like folk-ballads or nursery-rhymes, almost. What he is saying seems so obvious that we can attend to (a far harder question) what it means. But often the simple style hides a very clever expression. Equally, it is difficult to say what Blake has said without using many more words, as with his comment on the "black'ning church" in London. Blake is especially fond of repetition, either of a whole sentence form (in the opening stanza of A Poison Tree) or a single word or short phrase (as with "In every..." in London).
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