Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1450
The poetry of William Blake, an artist, printer, prophet, and revolutionary, varies widely in style and substance, from youthful imitations of Spenser to lyrics of seemingly naive childish wonder to obscure and pretentious mysticism. Apart from his earliest productions, his work shows a powerful originality in form, images, and technique.
His juvenile work, written between the ages of twelve and twenty, was published in 1783 as POETICAL SKETCHES. The poems, which are slight and at times even crude, show a strong Elizabethan influence. Occasional flashes of lyrical brilliance are visible, however, such as this stanza from a song known to have been written before he was fourteen:
With sweet May dews my wings werewet,And Phoebus fir’d my vocal rage;He caught me in his silken net,And shut me in his golden cage.
Although he remained poor and generally unknown throughout his life, Blake was well acquainted with a number of leading social and political radicals, and he belonged to a discussion group which included Henry Fuseli, Thomas Holcroft, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, and others. Through such stimulation he was able to develop his own radical views about Christianity, Swedenborgianism, and the American and French revolutions. His dual concern with mysticism and political radicalism about 1788-1789 marks his intellectual and artistic maturity. These two strains were immediately evident in Blake’s two major collections of lyrics, SONGS OF INNOCENCE (1789), and SONGS OF EXPERIENCE (1794), printed together in 1794 as SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE. All three volumes were illustrated by the author’s powerfully imaginative engravings, which contribute greatly to the reader’s appreciation of the text. By “innocence” and “experience” Blake meant two contrary, though not clearly defined, states of the human soul. The two groups of poems directly oppose their subject matter. We are given “Infant Joy” against “Infant Sorrow,” “The Blossom” against “The Sick Rose,” “The Lamb” against “The Tiger,” “The Divine Image” against “The Human Abstract,” and opposed treatments of “The Chimney Sweeper,” “A Little Boy Lost,” and others. The poems are remarkable for their simple grace and direct emotional expression. “Innocence” is something like happiness, a state of wonder and acceptance and endurance of life. The “innocent” chimney sweep, for example, although aware of his misery, retains his vision and faith:
There’s little Tom Dacre, who criedwhen his head,That curled like a lamb’s back, wasshaved: so I said“Hush Tom! never mind it, for whenyour head’s bareYou know that the soot cannot spoilyour white hair.”
In contrast, the chimney sweep of the opposed poem in SONGS OF EXPERIENCE understands the earth-bound social cause and the destructive aspects of life. His complaint is bitter:
And because I am happy and danceand sing,They think they have done me noinjury,And are gone to praise God and HisPriest and King,Who make up a Heaven of our misery.
The poet’s opposition of “innocence” and “experience” reflects the development of his Doctrine of Contraries, a philosophical view which was to dominate his poetry for the rest of his life. He defines this doctrine in THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL (c. 1790): “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.” Elsewhere in the same work he casts these oppositions as a “Prolific Force” against a “Devouring Force”:But the Prolific would cease to be prolific unless the Devourer, as a sea, received the excess of his delights. Some will say: ’Is not God alone the Prolific?’ I answer: ’God only acts and is in existing beings, or men.’
Blake apparently viewed progress as cyclical, as a period of creation following one of destruction. Such a view is present in the mythology of his later works. Specifically, THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL attacks the rationalism of eighteenth-century Protestantism, which, Blake felt, reduced complex moral problems to over-simplified formulas. By means of paradox he hoped to stress a truer and more complicated awareness of the human condition. In “The Little Vagabond,” for example, a later lyric associated with SONGS OF EXPERIENCE, the young narrator complains: “Dear mother, dear mother, the Church is cold,/But the Ale-house is healthy and pleasant and warm.” Although apparently uncomplicated, Blake’s lyrics are written in a complex vision.
Blake’s prophetic and mystical writings include THE BOOK OF THEL (1789); TIRIEL (c.1789); VISIONS OF THE DAUGHTERS OF ALBION (1793); AMERICA: A PROPHECY (1793); EUROPE, A PROPHECY (1794); THE FIRST BOOK OF URIZEN (1794): THE SONG OF LOS (1795); THE BOOK OF AHANIA (1795); THE FOUR ZOAS (c.1797); MILTON (1804-1808); JERUSALEM (1804-1820); and THE GHOST OF ABEL (1822). These poems generally employ a kind of free verse, although there are some memorable lyrical passages, and an obscure and at times incomprehensible personal mythology. Various critics have produced widely differing interpretations.
These writings may be profitably divided into four groups which indicate different directions in the author’s thought. The first such group contains THEL and TIRIEL, works that are allegorical rather than symbolic. THEL argues for a benevolent providence found in all things. TIRIEL is an Ossianic imitation with the theme of defiant children against a tyrannical father. Neither poem shows the paradoxical views Blake was soon to develop.
The second group marks the beginning of Blake’s characteristic mystical thought. It includes the prose work. THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL, and two subgroups of related poems. The first group, consisting of A SONG OF LIBERTY; VISIONS OF THE DAUGHTERS OF ALBION; AMERICA: A PROPHECY; EUROPE, A PROPHECY; and THE SONG OF LOS, employs relatively uncomplicated symbolism. They stress the doctrine of man’s regeneration through a revolt against common moral standards to produce an apparently anarchical society. The second group, which includes THE FIRST BOOK OF URIZEN, THE BOOK OF LOS (1795), and THE BOOK OF AHANIA, introduces a myth which challenges the Hebraic-Christian and Miltonic views of cosmology, man, and sin. These poems are intellectually significant in that the action is set against a background of blind fate. The power of God to direct the universe is implicitly denied.
VALA, an earlier form of THE FOUR ZOAS, is representative of a third development in Blake’s mythology. To his earlier symbolism he added new qualities and powers. Urizen, Luvah, Tharmas, and Urthona or Los are associated respectively with the intellect or the Brain, the affections or the Heart, the appetite or the Tongue, and the Ear or the prophetic and creative activity. He apparently wished either to base his myth in psychology or to include human attributes in a story about the origins of the universe.
About 1797, however, while still working on VALA, Blake radically shifted his views to a belief in a beneficent God, although he maintained his attack against conventional theology and moral codes. THE FOUR ZOAS, MILTON, and JERUSALEM belong to the fourth group, which features a more extensive use of symbols derived from Christianity and a more elaborate view of his theories about reality and knowledge. His theory of salvation through revolt, as well as Orc, its symbol, finally disappears. At the same time Blake more closely identifies his mysticism with art. Instead of creating a new mythology to express his new views, Blake rewrote and patched up the old symbolism, inevitably confusing it still further. He left no fully coherent myth.
MILTON consists of two separate parts, the obscure and shadowy Satan-Palamabron myth, and the descent of Milton into the world to correct his theological errors in PARADISE LOST, such as having regarded Satan as punished by God for his sins. Blake often claimed to have spoken to Milton in visions. Crabb Robinson, an acquaintance of Blake, wrote to Dorothy Wordsworth: “Now, according to Blake, atheism consists in worshipping the natural world, which same natural world, properly speaking, is nothing real but a mere illusion produced by Satan. Milton was for a great part of his life an atheist, and therefore his fatal errors in PARADISE LOST, which he often begged Blake to refute.” MILTON is also noteworthy for the striking lyric with which it begins, “And did those feet in ancient time.”
JERUSALEM deals with Albion’s (man’s) conquest of error on earth and with his return to Eternity. It celebrates the law of Forgiveness of Sins. The text as we have it is obscured by many revisions, but in 1809 the poet published a clear description of its theme: “(The Strong Man, the Beautiful Man, and the Ugly Man) were originally one man who was fourfold; he was self-divided, and his real humanity slain on the stems of generation, and the form of the fourth was like the Son of God . . . it is voluminous, and contains the ancient history of Britain and the world of Satan and of Adam.”