William Blake

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All of Blake's poetry advocates a mindset and way of living diametrically opposed to the way of life endorsed by most people, both in his time and in contemporary society. What might be gained by his way of seeing the world? What might be lost?

Blake, in much his poetry, advocates a liberal mindset and a way of living which is characterised by a childlike freedom and innocence. This is diametrically opposed to the more conservative mindset and the more work-orientated way of living which was and still is today more prevalent.

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One poem which demonstrates Blake's liberal mindset is "The Garden of Love." In this poem, Blake rejects orthodox religion, which he chastises as restrictive and authoritarian. In the poem there is a chapel enclosed by gates, and above the chapel there is written, "Thou shalt not." At the end of the poem, the speaker complains that the priests "bind ... with briars ... (his) joys & desires." This metaphorical image implies that the speaker, and also the poet, longs for freedom, and in this specific instance, freedom from organised religion. Blake often advocates a more spiritual, liberal approach to religion.

In another of his poems, "The Ecchoing Green," Blake, as he often does, celebrates the joys and innocence of childhood. Indeed, throughout Blake's poetry, the child is used as an image of innocence and freedom. In this poem, Blake presents an idyllic, utopian vision of a life lived in accordance with the innocence and freedom of childhood. The birds "Sing louder around," and "Old John" "laugh(s) away care," while the children play on the eponymous "Ecchoing Green." This is the way Blake would like people to live.

The diametrically opposed way of living is a way of life focused on work and money. This way of life is not carefree, it is burdensome. It is miserable rather than joyous. This other way of life is described in the poem "London." In this poem, Blake describes a life characterized by "weakness" and "woe," in which people are chained by "mind-forged manacles." Broadly speaking, this way of life is synonymous with adulthood and with the burdens and responsibilities that come with adulthood. The way of life that Blake advocates is broadly synonymous with childhood, and the freedom and innocence that are part of not being grown up.

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William Blake was a Romantic poet, and as such, he often in his poetry celebrated the natural world. Romantic poets celebrated the natural world as a refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city, and they also believed that by being one with nature, one could be close to God, who was manifest in nature. Romantics also believed that the value of an individual's life could best be determined by that individual's emotional wellbeing.

At the same time that Blake was writing, England was undergoing an industrial revolution. The industrial revolution was a boon for capitalism because it allowed property owners to use machinery rather than people and thus maximize their profits. This prevailing capitalist ideology therefore prioritized personal gain and encouraged the belief that one's worth, or value, could be determined not by one's emotional wellbeing, but by one's social and economic statuses.

The industrial revolution also posed a threat to the natural world. More and more factories were built, which meant more and more pollution. The natural world was considered important only in as much as it provided the natural resources to power industry.

From a modern perspective, William Blake's mindset, and that of the Romantics generally, seems very prescient. We appreciate the natural world much more now because we understand global warming and the consequences of industrialization.

From William Blake's Romantic mindset, we might still gain a better understanding as to how to live in harmony with the natural world. We might also gain an understanding as to the consequences of thinking of the natural world as a resource to exploit rather than as something to appreciate and cherish.

From the same mindset, we might lose in that our industrial and technological progress would be necessarily slower. If people had appreciated the natural world more in Blake's time, then it is possible that many people in the developed world today wouldn't have quite the same array of luxuries that they take for granted and which are consequent of rapid industrial progress.

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During Blake's lifetime, his native Britain was experiencing rapid social and economic change. Though the nation was becoming more prosperous during this period, large numbers of people were left behind, unable to share in Britain's growing wealth. Blake felt that the poorest sections of society were being ignored. In many of his poems, he seeks to give them a voice.

To this end, he used his extraordinary poetic imagination to reveal the often sordid reality beneath the outward prosperity of modern Britain. In poems such as "London," for instance, Blake delves deep into the daily life of the metropolis. What he sees there horrifies him. This is a city, the largest and most prosperous in the world, which is nonetheless a place where people's faces are etched with misery. It is a place where child laborers are ruthlessly exploited, and where infants cry with fear as if anticipating the life that they're about to lead.

In common with other Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth, Blake believes that ordinary people should have their voices reflected in poetry. At the same time, he isn't simply describing the details of their lives; he's infusing them with his imagination to create a distinctive world which is unique to Blake as an artist. It is this remarkable fusion of the imaginative with the mundane that sets Blake apart from other poets and gives us an insight, not just into the world in which he lived, but also into the workings of his extraordinary mind.

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