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Blake writes about his thoughts and feelings concerning the society around him Essay

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In his poetry Blake writes about his thoughts and feelings concerning the society around him. Comment on Blake’s attitudes in several poems of your choice and explain how effective the poems are in presenting his views.

William Blake, who lived in the latter half of the eighteenth century and the early part of the nineteenth, was a profound poet who was, in large part, responsible for bringing about the Romantic Movement in poetry. Blake was an extremely eccentric man, who was viewed by most of the people of the time as mad, except for a small group of loyal followers who saw him as a genius.

Blake was an individual to say the least, who had his own views on everything, He didn’t automatically agree with set views that were seen to be proper, instead he acted like his own man and made decisions for himself. His views at the time would have seemed rebellious and very unorthodox, which is probably the reason that his work only became famous long after his death.

Yet seeing his paintings, and reading his poems and engravings in the modern world, where everyone has freedom of speech, the somewhat outrageous aspect that they used to have has diminished.

To help me convey his views on the society that he lived in I have selected three poems. All of my chosen poems are taken from the ‘Songs of Experience’, which shows the world as he saw it, where ‘iron laws’ devised by Blake’s grim god, crush ‘the soul of sweet delight’. In this book he uses words, which can be understood on different levels. Therefore to understand the poems fully you need to look below the surface meanings.

The poems that I have selected are:

The School Boy

The Chimney Sweeper

London

‘The School Boy’ is a poem in which Blake’s views on the schooling system of his time are strongly portrayed. It explains that the children get taught unimportant things, and even if they were taught something important they wouldn’t be able to take it in properly because they are miserable. It says how school wears away their childhood, and by taking away their joy and happiness they are not being prepared for later life, instead their individual qualities are being stripped.

In ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ Blake tries to express his views on the chimney sweep trade. He explains that it is as bad as death, and the parents can go off to church (to follow Christianity, where you should treat others like you would like to be treated yourself) leaving their child in ‘slavery’. And because the child doesn’t voice their objection the parents think that it is all right.

In ‘London’ Blake criticises the state of the city and shows his pity and sympathy for the suffering people that live there; people that are repressed, exploited, poor and miserable.

The Chimney Sweeper (experience)

A little black thing among the snow,

Crying “weep! weep!” in notes of woe.

“Where are thy father and mother, say?”

They are both gone up to the church to pray.

The poem starts off by playing on the innocence of the chimney sweeper by using the word ‘little’ to make the sweep seem innocent and defenceless. The next line again plays on this by using the word ‘weep’ which makes the child seem more defenceless and to a degree pathetic, it is also similar to the chimney sweeper cry of sweep sweep. The next line is trying to blame the parents by saying where are the parents when the child is suffering. The next line says that the parents are praying in church. As before this is a dig aimed at the parents, it is saying that the parents are praying to God possibly to stop suffering in the world when their own child is suffering and they aren’t doing any thing about it.

Because I was happy upon the heath,

And smiled among the winter snow,

They clothed me in the clothes of death,

And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

In the second stanza the child in a way blames his predicament on his own happiness. The child says that because I was happy and smiled, the parents thought it was all right to make him a chimney sweep. The stanza hangs on the word because, this make it sound like it is his fault when it isn’t. Then next line has two slightly different meanings. The first is that because the child seemed happy they dressed him as a chimney sweep, which to the child was as bad as being dead. The other is that the dirty grey smelly clothes reminded him of death. The poem next says that the parents taught the child to sing the notes of woe. This is saying that after being dressed as a chimney sweep, the parents taught him to how to sweep the chimney. The song being the actual sweeping and the notes of woe (sadness) being the grim task.

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.

This stanza starts much like the last one; it says that because I am happy, they think they have done me no misery. It means that just because I am happy doesn’t mean that what you did was all right. The injury that they have caused was the ‘enslavement’ into sweeping. Yet because the child seems happy and endures the treatment the parents can’t see that it isn’t a good thing to do. The next line refers back to the first stanza in which the parents went to pray; here they have gone to pray leaving the child behind, where they are blindly making out the misery that the child is enduring to be something happy and bright like heaven. He is also criticising the church by implying that the church seem to support the parents’ decision to ‘enslave’ the child.

The School Boy

I love to rise in a summer morn

When the birds sing on every tree,

The distant huntsman winds his horn,

And the skylarks sing with me.

Oh what sweet company!

The poem starts off nice and cheerfully, Blake uses strong happy words like love to emphasise the joy of the verse. The happiness is again emphasised by using happy images like singing birds. This is made more powerful by saying that birds were singing on every tree. Although the image of a huntsman isn’t exactly a happy, joyful image it helps to display the free atmosphere that he is trying to create. On the next line when he says ‘the skylarks sing with me’ he is again highlighting that every thing is happy, and that he is in harmony with nature. The last line in the stanza summarises the whole verse, and ends it with a very cheerful line.

But to got to school in a Summer Morn,

Oh! it drives all joy away.

Under a cruel eye outworn

The little ones spend the day

In sighing and dismay

The first two lines show what he thinks of school. That on a summer morning when you should be happy and joyful, having to go to school makes you miserable. Then on the third line he portrays an evil image (‘cruel eye’) in attempt to get the readers to agree with his views. He also tries to do this in the last two lines of the verse, he refers to the children as ‘little ones’, this makes them seem pathetic and innocent. He follows that up by portraying the image of the innocent defenceless children sighing.

Ah! then at times I drooping sit

And spend many an anxious hour,

Nor in my book can I take delight,

Nor sit in learning’s bower,

Worn thro’ with the dreary shower.

He starts the third stanza with a sigh (Ah) to emphasise the misery that the children are feeling, he then portrays another strong image of children drooping over their desks. The next three lines depicts the way that he thinks that school isn’t the best place for children to learn. He is saying that the children are too worried to learn. And because they are so anxious they can’t enjoy books, nor can they learn properly. The last line shows that he is worn out with his life.

How can a bird that is born for joy

Sit in a cage and sing?

How can a child, when fears annoy,

But droop his tender wing,

And forget his youthful spring?

The first two lines are analogies, which mean that how can a child, have fun, if it is cooped up in school where they are miserable. The idea of the bird in a cage is a very effective image because it clearly portrays the ‘enslavement’. The next three lines suggest that the schooling system is wearing away the child’s precious childhood.

Oh! Father and mother, if buds are nipped,

And blossoms blown away;

And if the tender plants are stripped

Of their joy in the springing day

By sorrow and care’s dismay;

The verse opens with another exclamation, this is used to emphasise the feelings towards the life of the schoolboy. The end of the first line and the second are analogies that mean that the child’s personality is curved and it can’t develop fully, the next line reinforces this view by saying that these qualities will be lost. The next lines mean if that if the child isn’t allowed to play and have fun on a spring day then the child will be damaged.

How shall the summer arise in joy,

Or the summer fruits appear?

Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,

Or bless the mellowing year,

When blasts of winter appear?

This verse like many of the previous ones is in anomaly. In this verse Blake is asking the readers how can the child do well in later life as an adult, if they was restricted as a child. It is suggesting that if a child’s joy and happiness is taken away then they are not being properly prepared for later life.

London

I wander thro’ each chartered street,

Near where the chartered Thames does flow,

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness marks of woe.

The whole of this poem has a very rhythmic feel to it; the last words on alternate lines also rhyme. The first verse is very negative and depressing. In the first two lines he describes each streets (which suggests that there are lots) and the Thames to be owned by something. That nothing is left to be and everything has a price. It the next two lines he goes on to say how there are signs of weakness and woe in peoples faces. This is very negative and suggests that they are fed up and worn out.

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.

In the first three lines of this stanza he repeats the use of the word every to emphasise his point. This is effective because he compared both men and children. By saying every ban it makes it sound as though every thing is forbidden. He then says how man’s mind has devised laws to imprison himself in. The strong image of chains is use here to great effect.

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry

Every blackening church appals;

And the hapless soldiers sigh

Runs in blood down palace walls.

He again dwells on the misery by stating the crying chimney sweeps. The next line has a double meaning, it refers to the pollution of the time but more significantly the fact that the church is black because it condors dark deeds such as chimney sweeping. The unlucky soldiers sigh because they are sent of to war by those in power. The blood running down the palaces walls is that of the soldiers and is meant to signify that the soldiers’ deaths were the responsibility of the palace/rulers.

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear.

How the youthful harlot’s curse

Blasts the new-born infants tear,

And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.

This verse is about the collapse of marriages and as a result, children’s lives. He is saying that men turning to prostitutes help to destroy marriage, and the babies, whether born to harlots of married women stand little chance in life. He uses very strong imagery to convey his views, like ‘blights with plagues the marriage hearse’. Normally marriage is associated with joy and happiness, the beginning of a new life, not with death and misery.

After analysing the three poems it is very clear to see what his views are regarding the society of the time. ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ clearly portrays his views on both the trade and of the Church. He comments and describes the trade as being like death, and the church seaming to agree with the awful trade seams like a hypocrisy. In ‘The School Boy’ he clearly shows how he sees the schools.

He describes them as places of misery, places where children are too scared to learn. He shows how he thinks the school does more harm than good in preparing the child for later life. In ‘London’ his views cover both the people and the land. He discusses how the land is all owned, and nothing is free. He talks about the rules and regulations that man has set upon himself and how the downfall of marriages leads to the child having little chance in life. He also refers back to his views of the church and chimney sweeping.

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