How was William Blake an originator of the Romantic movement in English poetry?

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Much of Blake's poetry, particularly his collection of Songs of Innocence, published in 1789 is emblematic of the Romantic poets.  Many of the poems, like "The Lamb" or "The Chimney Sweeper" idealize young children, while casting the harmful elements of the Industrial Revolution into a negative light.  "The Chimney Sweeper" also contains a strong supernatural element with an angel who redeems the chimney sweepers from their locked coffins with a golden key. 

Later in Blake's collection Songs of Experience (1794), he continues to build on his criticism of the Industrial Revolution, drawing contrast between the better elements of nature and the dark, destructive aspects of industrialization.  Poems like "London" portray the city as a harsh, unforgiving landscape, pierced by the cries of desperate citizens, which reinforces the theme of unrest and dissatisfaction with urbanization.  Another poem from Songs of Experience, "The Garden of Love" combines all of the best Romantic elements:  the supernatural, nature, dark imagery, moody, emotional introspection, and a conflicted speaker.  The speaker returns to "The Garden of Love" to find that instead of lovely flowers, the garden is full of graves garded by dark shrouded figures. 

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William Blake is considered a marginal member of the early Romantic movement.

The Romantics wrote with many of the following characteristics in their work:

  • a return to nature
  • idealization of women and children
  • an interest in the past (especially medieval)
  • championing personal freedom
  • melancholy
  • the supernatural and the occult
  • imagination and emotion

Romanticism is generally thought to have started with the 1798 publication of Lyrical Ballads, written by Romantic authors William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In this publication was Coleridge's epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which displayed many of the above-listed characteristics. The most outstanding of these was his theme regarding a respect for nature. This is not a surprise as the Romantic movement was propelled forward in response to England's Industrial Revolution, which not only exploited women and children, but poisoned the environment with pollution.

Blake was, however, different from other first-generation Romantic writers. First, he was a very mystical man—some believed he was crazy. He claimed to have seen an angel when he was very young. Religion had a strong influence on Blake—perhaps because (it is believed by some) he was raised by his parents following the doctrine of the Moravian Church. As an adult Blake was...

...hostile to the Church of England – indeed, to all forms of organised religion.

Blake was a gifted artist, "illuminating" many books, and also a supporter of the revolutions in both America and France. 

In terms of his writing, Blake's...

...earlier work is primarily rebellious in character...

This would align Blake to the other Romantic writers as champions of personal freedom. 

Romantics were attracted to rebellion and revolution, especially concerned with human rights, individualism, freedom from oppression.

Blake rebelled against England's church. He found it difficult to abide matrimonial laws regarding monogamy—especially when his wife could no longer have children. (This seems to contradict religious doctrine, but Blake was an unusual man.) And he was, as mentioned, a strong advocate of the revolutions of the day.

Other characteristics that can be found in Blake's poetry are his tendency to rely on his imagination and a great many references to the supernatural (anything that is beyond the natural world, i.e., God). For example, in his poem, "The Tiger," note imagination in personifying the tiger, the reference to nature, and the supernatural in Blake's allusion to God:

Tiger, tiger, burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

He speaks to a tiger and asks it questions throughout the poem (personification). Nature and imagination can be seen in the "forests of the night" which brings to mind the mysteries of the woods covered under a cloak of darkness. The "immortal hand or eye" refers to God.

Blake is considered a Romantic writer because of the presence of the characteristics of Romantic literature found in his writings. While he is considered by some to also be a part of the Pre-Romantic period, and his interests in the supernatural always refer to God (whereas others might describe ghosts, spirits, etc.), Blake is considered a Romantic poet, even if he is on the fringes of that literary movement.

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