Serious academic critics of poetry, Romatics in particular are invited to critique this study. I am particularly interested in opinion of my reading of The Sick Rose, which I believe to have been misinterpreted by authorities on the subject.
In what way can Blake’s poems be said to be revolutionary?
In what way can Blake’s poems be said to be revolutionary?
The Sick Rose
Oh rose, thou art sick;
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm
Has found out
Thy bed of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
The sick rose has been said to be a love poem, which describes a broken heart. It is however a poem which may be interpreted in a much more sinister way. It is a poem which can be said to describe the political state of England.
Songs of Experience was published in 1793, the year that revolution broke out in violence in France. The Sick Rose, taken line by line, can be seen to have stark symbolism in the two stanzas. Indeed if it is read passively, it makes no real sense and is difficult to follow.
Oh rose though art sick: This may refer to the houses of England that produced the crown heads for many generations. The Houses of Lancaster and York and the House of Tudor are represented by a rose emblem, as is England.
The invisible worm might refer to the metaphorical worms in the stomach, or malcontent political unrest.
That flies in the night: Illegal and dangerous political meetings are held in secret as a matter of course and the underground messages of these secret meetings might be said to fly in the night. The result of such meetings will be the howling storm of revolution. When this invisible worm of unrest catches up with the sick rose of the establishment, it will find its bed of crimson joy. This is a metaphor of a literal fact in rose gardening, where dried blood is used as a fertilizer of rose beds. In this case the representation of the sick rose of England has been inverted to mean the poor masses rather than the landed gentry. Having been fed with the blood of the aristocracy, the rose will become well again. His dark secret love becomes the plotted revenge of the masses, which will of course, destroy their lives.
This single short poem then, introduces us to the idea that Blake’s poetry is far more than the children’s poetry that it appears to be. It is revolutionary in the political sense and Blake supported the French revolution. This support was disillusioned however when The Terrortook its grip on beloved France.
The structure of Blake’s poetry and the fact that it was presented in Songs of Innocence and of Experience as parts of pictorial images, is a revolutionary structure for poetry. The images are not mere illustrations of the poem. They are further symbolism, which adds to the meaning of the piece as a whole. As a child Blake is said to have seen angels in trees. And trees are very symbolic in Blake. He has associated the tree with the tree of knowledge in the Songs of Innocence. The tree is being strangled by a vine.
These poems were filled with symbolism that is not aimed at the child reader, but at their parents: who were the polite members of genteel society. It would be difficult reading for the land owning parent.
“Who in the Devil’s name ever thought of reading poetry for political or practical purposes till these Devil’s times that we live in?” (Coleridge).
Given the political atmosphere in England, it was extremely dangerous to hold antiestablishment views. There had been trials and hangings for sedition in England William Blake was arrested and charged with that crime. He perhaps found himself fortunate that the charges did not stick.
His poetry is in itself revolutionary for two reasons in particular. The genre of children’s poetry was popular at the time. Its purpose was to indoctrinate children into the values of church and society. It was a good vehicle therefore, for Blake to get his political message across. It is a revolutionary idea in itself, to use the power of simple rhyme for such a serious matter as the subjects he wished to address. And perhaps the message was all the more powerful for its innocent vehicle: A political wolf in sheep’s clothing then was the effect of Songs of Innocence and of Experience on the section of that society it touched.
So in what way was the presentation of Blake’s poetry so different to the poetry of the day? The Enlightenment or The Age of Reason was the time in which Blake lived and worked. A mechanistic view of nature was seen as the right, or normal way to view the world. The poetry of Pope and Grey were the order of the day. The heroic couplet as a template for poetry, upon which words can be piled, was the Romantic view of the style. Blake was known to have a passionate hatred of Newton and his works in science. Samuel Johnson, the renowned eighteenth century thinker and commentator, believed that a good thought should be generalised. Blake took the view that to generalise was to be an idiot: (lecture notes).
Thus the age of natural laws and the views of society left feeling and compassion to be the privilege of women children and fools. Children were seen as small adults waiting to grow up. For Blake the opposite was the case.The child held a purity of humanity which was somehow lost when growing into an adult. Sin for Blake was the denial of one’s own feelings: He believed in free love and he rejected institutional laws. He also concluded from these beliefs, that institutionalized religion promotes mental paralysis. Humanity for Blake was synonymous with divinity and that was what he meant by imagination: “All deities reside in the human heart”, he said. (lecture notes).
Blake expressed his imagination through poetry in an indirect way, to avoid accusations of sedition. He was passionately opposed to the slave trade, child labour and the establishment church. Holy Thursday, The Chimney Sweeper and London illustrate this very well. Songs of Experience, which was twinned with Songs of Innocence, was not sold separately. They are dependent upon each other for their true meaning to be seen. When they are read, the reason for this is self evident. Some of the poems share the same titles and subject matter, but the content is very different in each of the books. There is a discrepancy between what the narrator of the poem sees and thinks and the wider experience of the reader. The Songs of Experience however, does not see beyond suffering. There is no growth of human spirit in the poetry and they are distinctly cynical; they lack spontaneity (lecture notes). They lack imagination and have to be balanced with Songs on Innocence. They should not be read therefore, separately or passively.
The Chimney Sweeper
When my mother died I was very young
And my father sold me when 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 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.
Songs of Innocence
In Blake’s time children as young as four were entered into apprenticeships with master sweepers. The fee, usually paid to the master for teaching his trade, was paid by the master to the parent, if there was one, or to whoever had the child at the time. (Nurmi MK).
Tom Dacre’s head is shaved. The narrator, a boy colleague, makes a positive light of it by reminding him that the soot cannot dirty his white hair. This ignores, or detracts from the shame associated with ritual head shaving. The hair is likened to a lamb’s back. The reader is left feeling that the lamb id going to the slaughter. The narrator does not interpret the dream of Tom Dacre, but the reader does. The last two lines of the penultimate stanza imply that Christian values are complicit with child labour.
By contrast the three stanza poem in songs of Experience is half the length of the paired poem in Songs of Innocence.
The Chimney Sweeper
A little black thing amongst the snow,
Crying weep weep in notes of woe;
‘Where are my 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 make up a heaven of our misery.’
Songs of Experience.
The poem is short, blunt and brutal: As is the lives of the sweepers. It depicts misery, hopelessness and is explicitly critical of religion, church and the king, therefore the state. It is also a poem against slavery. It lacks imagination, or feeling of any sort. It seems dull and resigned. Even the line about dancing and singing is about poverty. Wu’s footnote (p75) he tells us that Erdman suggests that the sweepers danced on the streets of London on May Day, for alms.
Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two by two in red and blue and green,
Grey-headed beadles walked before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome f St.Paul’s they like Thames’ waters flow.
Oh what a multitude they seemed, 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 and girls raised 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.
Songs of Innocence
Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land?
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold usurious 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 where’er the rain does fall,
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appal.
Songs of Experience
These two versions of Holy Thursday are likewise paired in the two books and only go further to illustrate the points raised above. Blake describes the children of the poor who attended charity schools. They went to St.Paul’s to attend an annual service for them. It was intended to display the gratitude of the children to their patrons. In describing this scene, Blake manages to describe a picture of brutality, corporal punishment and the insincerity of the service. He refers to the children as lambs, who are herded as to the ark, two by two, with the shepherd’s big stick. They are lambs to the slaughter: innocents who neither understand nor protest their lot.
The poem of the same title in Songs of Experience has a very different construction and flavour. In this all innocence is lost and the children genuinely are victims of their own condition.. The government is attacked for governing one of the wealthiest countries in the world: depicted a land of poverty. It is a cold land, poor in pit, usurious and devoid of feeling. In other words it is lacking imagination. This can be said of the book generally. It was Blake’s way of showing loss of innocence; loss of feeling, and the resulting Blakeian sin of denial. They are then, deeply political poems and revolutionary in their content, presentation and their vehicle.
I wonder through each chartered street
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe
In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear
How the chimney sweepers cry
Every black’ning church appals,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.
But most through streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the newborn infant’s tear,
And blights with plague the marriage hearse.
Songs of Experience
This four stanza poem refers to the way the establishment and capital money keep everything in order, but the people who have to make it work remain in a state of weariness and regret.
In the second stanza the speaker generalises about what he sees. There is no feeling or thought of the people, just a generalized view of what he sees. Given Blake’s retort to Johnson, we may assume that the speaker is a closed minded idiot
The last two stanzas connect three professions with three institutions: The sweeper, the soldier and the harlot. These are allied to the church the crown and marriage. They are all professions that are youthful. They are also brutal and short. All three of these institutions are founded on the three professions. Blake is asking his polite readers to address themselves to these issues.
The anti-slavery belief that Blake held is well documented. Yet again the Chimney Sweeper, in both versions can be seen to allude to the crime of slavery. Yet one of the poems held up as an example of this is:
The Little Black boy.
My mother bore me in the southern wild
And I am black, but oh, my soul is white!
White as an angel is the English child,
But I am black, as if bereaved of light.
My mother taught me underneath a tree,
And sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And pointing to the East began to say,
‘Look on the rising sun: there God does live,
And gives his light, and gives his heat away;
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning, joy in the noonday.
And we are put on earth a little space
That we may learn to bear the beams of love;
And these black bodies and this sunburnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shaded grove.
For when our souls have learned the heat to bare
The cloud will vanish; we shall hear his voice
Saying, “come out from the grove, my love and care,
Around my golden tent like lambs rejoice!” ’
Thus did my mother say, and kissed me;
And thus I say to little English boy,
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God likes lambs we joy,
I’ll shade him from the heat, till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our father’s knee;
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him, and he will then love me.
Songs of Innocence
The only reference that can directly be associated with slavery per se, is the word beasts in line eleven of the poem. But this word is in the phrase “And flowers … receive”. This can equally be interpreted as meaning the entire living world: a pantheist view. If this is true then the poem takes a different and much deeper light. If there is no slavery referred to metaphorically or literally, then the poem is about racism of all kinds. And that does make the poem revolutionary. Indeed it is beyond that, it is visionary. Blake was looking beyond the immediate question, to the first cause of slavery.
Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience were inspired by his own short story writings and his own experience.
He was at the front of the riot, with George Crabbe at his side, in London, when Newgate prison was burned down on 6th June 1780. And if there were evidence needed to justify the conclusion that Blake is a revolutionary, political poet, then The Song of Liberty in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell will convince the doubter. (P.93 Wu)
The eternal female groaned! It was heard over all the earth.
Albion’s coast is sick, silent, the American meadows faint.
According to Wu in his footnotes: (n63; P93) ‘The momentous birth, (revolution) heralds an apocalypse. Blake was not only a supporter of the American and French revolutions, but also foresaw a global revolution, with the poor of the world breaking their chains. ‘the American meadows faint; France rent down thy dungeon, Golden Spain: burst the barriers of Old Rome.’
Blake is asking England to forget the Americas as a colony and itself as a colonial power. He reminds France of the cost of keeping the poor starving in rags and asks Spain to break its links with the holy Roman Church.
The twelfth line closes asking Africans to rise up too and prays that the thought will raise the masses up to their freedom, presumably through his poetry. Liberty ends with an idyllic thought of the future, as does the bible. Blake however sees the breaking up of the Ten Commandments, only then will peace prevail.
So we can conclude that Blake’s poetry can no more be taken at face value than Wordsworth or Coleridge can. Though Blake was largely ignored during his lifetime and was only studied by academics like Bronowski in the middle of the twentieth century, he became popular in the sixties. This may be said to be as a result of the free love movement of the time. Nonetheless he is an important writer of his time. As Coleridge and Wordsworth were reviewed badly in the eighteenth century press, their poetry has stood the test of time too. They were of like minds these Romantics. Some were friends, and some were associated by marriage and common publishers. It must be said however that the Romantic period was not a movement of design, as were say the Pre-Raphaelites of the later nineteenth century.
Coleridge was a pantheist wracked by guilt as a devout Christian and Wordsworth was the better poet of the two. The revolutionary aspects of Coleridge and Wordsworth’s poetry are as captivating as Blake’s. Tintern Abbey expresses Wordsworth’s feelings at the eve of the revolution in France. Dated 13th July 1798 it is the eve before Bastille Day.
Coleridge invented the conversation poem and he revolutionized poetry for the future, but they were all preceded by the works of Blake.
As we have said, he used the genre of the nursery rhyme to advance his political ideals. He was personally involved in political unrest and came close to being convicted of sedition. The nation would have been all the poorer had he hanged. Blake’s poetry is revolutionary in a political sense; in the mode of construction, with images filled with symbolism, and in the method of delivery through the medium of the children’s rhyme. He attacked the establishment, slavery, the crown and church. At the same time he put his ideas to the people who he wanted to see them, through their children.
Bronowski J. 1972: William Blake and the Age of Revolution. London: Routledge & Keegan Paul
Baum J.1994 Mind Forg’d Manacles. Slavery and the English Romantic Poets P.13: Archon Books, Connecticut.
Romanticism: 2000; Ed. Duncan Wu. Second Edition with CD-Rom. Blackwell: Oxford
Notes taken from Lectures of: Dr. P. Bentley: Revolution and Romanticism.