Songs Of Experience


Songs Of ExperienceChallenges To Conventional Thinking In The Poetry Of William Blake Essay, Research Paper

In this essay I will be discussing, firstly, and in the context of my vague understanding of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century society in Britain, the criticism of dominant middle-class thought that William Blake presents in Songs of Experience . I understand that perhaps less than thirty copies of this were ever printed in Blake?s lifetime, so any challenge to contemporary conventional thinking was largely unheard, but this does not invalidate exploring the social conditions and attitudes that provoke the poems. I would then like to discuss some of Blake?s grander challenges to conventional thought and, in particular, the received truths of orthodox religion as put forth in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell . Here we find not only a challenge to conventional thought, but also a challenge to sanity, and I found it to be the case that after reading and re-reading, just when the poem appears to come into focus and some understanding is reached, the very line which seemed sensible becomes insane, and meaning is lost. This by no means detracts from the worth of the poem, and could be said to be its very argument: that my doors are in need of cleansing.

The latter half of the eighteenth-century saw increased antagonism between the upper classes, which believed the lower classes had become riotous and unruly, and the lower classes, which were questioning the authority of the upper classes to keep them in subservience. With the government playing a diminishing role in the economy, and since only wealthy landholders could elect Members of Parliament, the chief concern of the state was the consolidation of property. ?The great and chief end,? said John Locke, ?of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.? Between 1688 and 1810, parliament added around two hundred capital offences against property. The attitude towards the poor was generally that they were lazy, and so it was harsh treatment that was needed to solve poverty. So, only those wearing a ?P? for pauper could receive charity, and workhouses were established to hide the poor from sight. Of over two thousand children who entered London workhouses between 1750-55, perhaps ninety percent died there, and an extreme example of the treatment of children was the hanging of a seven-year old girl for theft.

Growing prosperity amongst the middle class gave rise to a ?culture of comfort?, and a desire for privacy and social segregation. The defining character of social order, as they saw it, was that ?nursery of virtue?, the family, and the rising standard of living encouraged the development of concepts of ?childhood? and ?adolescence?. We see in Blake?s Songs of Experience the spotlight cast on those who could not afford these ideas, who could not afford virtue and respectability. In ?Holy Thursday?, Blake laments that a nation as rich as his should be so miserly and lacking in compassion:

Is this a holy thing to see,

In a rich and fruitful land,

Babes reduced to misery,

Fed with cold and usurous hand?

(1-4)Here, we have the mild suggestion that the rich are acting irreligiously. As Blake goes on, criticism of middle class virtue become more vigorous, as do his attacks on the established church.

?They think they have done me no injury:

And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King

Who make up a heaven of our misery.?

(?The Chimney Sweeper?, 10-12)Now, although there was, in the legacy of the Enlightenment, a cynicism towards organised religion, there was nevertheless an increase in religious practice amongst all social classes in the eighteenth-century. And, also, the virtue of Christian morality was never in question. Observation of religious practices and Christian morality endowed the middle classes with a sense of self-worth. It was a method of achieving nobility without a title, since they reasoned that it was not in status, but in virtuousness that nobility resided. We can see these views propagated and reflected in the work of Jane Austen. There was a move to instil these middle class sensibilities into the working class, and John Wesley (1703-1791) preached a populist sermon on the equality of man before God. He aimed to teach the working class of the virtues of abstinence from vice, and the propriety of hard work. There was a move in the Church of England to indoctrinate the workers-especially children, with Sunday schools where food was provided for the poor. Of course, under this guise of do-gooding, the real achievement of this all was to teach subservience, and respect for one?s social superiors.

Blake?s Songs of Experience really do pose a challenge to all the middle classes hold as virtuous, and what they consider to be the underpinning of all society. They expose the rottenness of imposing a set of rules upon a class of people, which have the effect of robbing them of any little pleasure they might have in an already tough life. The Little Vagabond makes light of this point in his endearing wish that ?the Church? would give us some Ale,/ And a pleasant fire, our souls to regale?? (?The Little Vagabond?, 5-6), but it is a poignant exclamation of the vile cultural imperialism to which they are subjected. Blake returns to the point in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, when he states ?One Law for the Lion and Ox is Oppression,? (Plate 24) and in the ?Proverbs of Hell?, ?The apple tree never asks the beech how he shall grow, nor the lion the horse how he shall take his prey.? (50)

Although the language used throughout the Songs is one of innocent sentimentality, and one that encourages sympathy and pity (the most challenging of these in ?London?, where Blake would have the reader feel pity for a prostitute), ?The Human Abstract? puts forth that it is not the pity of the reader he wishes for.

Pity would be no more,

If we did not make somebody Poor:

And Mercy would no more be,

If all were happy as we;

(1-4)Pity and mercy, it is suggested, are inventions of the rich to affirm their position in society. How could they be bad people if they feel such compassion for those worse off? In fact, they reason, it is precisely because they have such a capacity for human emotion and virtuous thoughts that they are above the common, vulgar classes. It is in these ways that Blake subtly challenges religious ideology, aiming to persuade and influence the reader, rather than engaging in an indignant, all out attack on conventional sensibility.

I think that a problem with Blake?s work, here particularly The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, is that it is hard to criticise it. Apart from his apocalyptic use of language, and his persistent abstinence from any elucidation of ideas so that any intended meaning of his is always questionable, he includes many Freudian loopholes that ensure he cannot be proven wrong. When he states that ?a fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,? (?Proverbs of Hell?, 8) he is surely saying that if his work looks, to you, madness then it could be you are a fool. And, ?Listen to the fool?s reproach! It is a kingly title!? (47) While definitely having a elements of truth in these observations, if we consider them as a defence of his work, this surely rings of Emperor?s New Clothes Syndrome, does it not? This is, then, perhaps Blake?s most challenging proposition, since it cannot be reasoned with and requires a blind faith and firm persuasion that you are the wise man and not the fool. It is impossible to tell, other than by being judged against common-sense, since ?Man by his reasoning power can only compare & judge of what he has already perciev?d.? But it is this type of perception that Blake challenges. So, it can be seen that this is a very difficult idea to reconcile with modern thought, one that requires we give ourselves up entirely to a belief that cannot be proven. That is, a religious belief. Blake obviously does not see this as similar to the blind faith and received truths of the church, because it is blind faith in our own imagination that he stresses-not acceptance of others? beliefs. I cannot put faith in something that can never be proven or disproved, and see such behaviour as leading only to insanity. Again, Blake?s argument is such that this statement can be turned against me. Perhaps some argument can be made against Blake on the grounds that imagination is definitely organic, and of the body, and is in no way a portal to the infinite universe, which I believe, though I cannot give this argument.

In There is No Natural Religion, Blake dismisses that idea, still beloved by many today, of common sense. He recognises that morality is not absolute truth, but received in education-this coming from the church-and tells us that ?Reason, or the ratio of what we have already known is not the same that it shall be when we know more,? (b, II) so, that which seems reasonable today may not tomorrow. Slavery, of course, is a good example. He persuasively argues that we cannot rely on our five bodily senses, on the grounds that: if we did not have, for example, a sense of smell, we would never know of the existence of smell; it does not follow that because we cannot sense it, it does not exist. This is challenging in its implications, yet perfectly valid. He goes on to state that since men are capable of experience other than the purely physical, that is, spiritual, then perception must not and is not limited to (bounded by) that of the five senses. Imagination is the perception of infinite capacity, and ?He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God.? (Application, p. 15) This is the idea Blake would expand on greatly in The Marriage.

Blake begins his Argument with a bold statement: that, in the traditional sense at least, there is no Good and Evil; these terms do not exist in the sense that one is the aim of mankind, while the other should be eliminated. The two are ?contraries?, and ?Without Contraries is no progression.? (Plate 3)

Goodness, we are taught, is Reason, restriction, and passivity. Evil is Energy, physical desire, and activity. Reason is Heaven. Energy is Hell. Blake challenges this with a magnificently vivid symbolization of the true natures of Reason and Energy. Reason, virtue in abstinence, is not of the soul while Energy is earthly temptation. Both are, in fact, of the body. Energy is the very driving force of life, ?is the only life? and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.? (Plate 4) The image is that of a sphere of Energy, surrounding man, and encased in Reason. This accompanies his statement, in There is No Natural Religion, that if man limits himself to perceiving only through the bodily senses, then he limits himself to bodily desires and can never know God. He goes on to talk of ?Those who restrain desire because theirs is weak enough to be restrained,? (Plate 5) whom we can take to be priests. This, wickedly, carries connotations of phallic pride, and is suggestive of the sexual impotence of priests and the like. His argument is, that no desire should be unfulfilled, because we can only desire what is within our Reason. ?No bird soars too high,? he says in the ?Proverbs of Hell?, ?if he soars with his own wings.? (15) His theory on the effects of imposing false limits on Energy are similar to what Freud would later state in his theory of repression, that whatever desire is repressed will re-emerge in a corrupted and ugly form. This is the subject of ?The Poison Tree?, in Experience, and of the ?Proverb of Hell?: ?Expect poison from the standing water.? (45)

Blake?s argument is that God ?reside[s] in the human breast? (Marriage, Plate 11), but what does he mean by this. It is not meant in the Nietzscheian sense that we are our own Gods, but in the sense that every man has the capacity to commune with God. God is not in any of the words of priests, or in the church. The Memorable Fancy on Plate 12 of The Marriage is an objection to the orthodox idea of God, and the Prophet Isaiah states that he ?saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception.? Blake?s explanation of why religion strays so far from original meaning, however, is similar to the explanation that Nietzsche would offer on morality:

A morality? at length enters consciousness as a law, as dominating-And therewith the entire group of related values and states enters into it: it becomes venerable, unassailable, holy, true; it is part of its development that its origin should be forgotten-That is a sign that it has become master-

We an see the comparison in The Marriage:

The ancient poets animated all sensible objects with Gods? [And] a system was formed, which took some advantage of & enslav?d the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects; thus began Priesthood. (Plate 11)

And in his earlier work, All Religions Are One . In this, viewed with There is No Natural Religion, and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, we come close to understanding the real essence of what Blake means when he states, perhaps incomprehensibly, that ?The desire of Man being Infinite, the possession is Infinite, & himself Infinite.? (There is No Natural Religion, b, VII) He speaks of the Poetic Genius, those with ?enlarged & numerous senses? (Marriage, Plate 11), he who has cleansed the ?doors of perception? and to whom all things appear, as they are, ?infinite? (Plate 14). It is Blake?s (questionable) belief that it is from the Poetic Genius that all knowledge springs, and without whom ?the universe would soon become a mill with complicated wheels? (There is No Natural Religion, b, IV). Without whose vision, the progress of humanity would halt, since ?none, by travelling over known lands can find out the unknown, So from already acquired knowledge Man could not acquire more? (All Religions Are One, Principle 4). This is the challenge of Blake, to become true Men:

The true Man is the source, he being the Poetic Genius. (Principle 7th)

BibliographyBlake, William, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; Johnson, Mary Lynn and Grant, John E.(eds.), Blake?s Poetry and Designs (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), pp. 81-102.

-Songs of Innocence and Experience; Johnson, Mary Lynn and Grant, John E. (eds.), Blake?sPoetry and Designs (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), pp 19-60.

Merriman, John, ?Eighteenth-Century Economic and Social Change?, A History of Modern Europe: from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: W. W. Norton & Company,1996), pp. 354-398.

-?Enlightened Thought and the Republic of Letters?, A History of Modern Europe: from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), pp. 399-441.

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