Go back to the Blake page for more texts and other resources.

William Blake Historical Context

An evaluation of the ideologies of Blake's informing context.

William Blake
1757 - 1827

Forgotten by his contemporaries but venerated by modern society, British poet, prophet, publisher, and artist William Blake was the earliest of a long line of reformist romantic poets. Regarded widely as a mad man, Blake was above all else a rebel whose anti-authoritarian spirit, and belief in freedom and individuality formed the basis of his revolutionary poetry. With it?s own unique style and form, Blake?s poetry outlived its critics, and William Blake is now widely identified as one of the greatest lyric poets of all time.

From humble beginnings as the son of a hosier, Blake was essentially self taught, drawing inspiration and influence from German mystic Jakob Bohemia and the pivotal works of Emanuel Swedenborg. After his preliminary education, he briefly attended the Royal Academy before being requested to leave after challenging the school?s president. Later on Blake managed to establish friendships with renowned academicians such as John Flaxman and Henery Fuseli, whose works may or may not have influenced his later poetry. Blake is usually referred to as a pre-romantic as result of the manner in which he would reject the traditional neoclassical style and modes of thought. Instead he attempted to appeal to the imagination and emotions over reason and practicality, a trademark identifiable within a number of his poems, particularly those of, ?Holy Thursday? from the Songs Of Innocence, and to a lesser extent in his later song of experience, ?The Sick Rose?.

A significant part of Blake?s writing is the presentation of his own dominant ideologies and beliefs. He once stated: ?I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man?s.? this truly defines the rebellious spirit of Blake. Similar to the notions examined at great length within the Songs Of Innocence, Blake is strongly in favour of intuition, spontaneity, energy and imagination; characteristics he later equates to being man?s path to divinity in ?Auguries of Innocence?. Meanwhile he was strongly opposed to the melancholic notions that are found riddled throughout his later work. Highly critical poems on rationality, normality and societal parameters are not uncommon and a trademark of Blake?s later, far more bitter poetry. As a social commentator, a number of issues relevant at the time were the inspiration behind gloomy works such as ?The Chimney Sweeper? regarding industrialisation and, from the Songs Of Experience, ?Holy Thursday?, in reference to poverty. Yet another concern to reformist Blake was society?s unwillingness to accept and recognise new ideas and opportunities for change. Stating at one point that these reservations were ?an enemy to social progression? he went on to poetically describes this woe in one of his more famous works, ?Mock On,?:

?Mock On, Mock On Voltaire, Rousseau:
Mock on, Mock on: ?tis all in vain!
You throw the sands against the wind
And the wind blows them back again.

While on initial examination its implications may seem minimal, further analysis of the excerpt proves to be enlightening. The retained image of the sand is actually an extended metaphor that runs throughout the entire poem. Representing the ideas of real life contemporary academics Voltaire and Rousseau, the sand, or ideas are thrown against the wind, the beliefs of society, where they are there upon ?blown back? or rejected as a result of society?s unwillingness to change it?s direction.

William Blake began his writing career in the late eighteenth century, continuing right up to his death in 1827. This period, between his birth in 1757 and his death seventy years later, was a time of great social, political, philosophical and economic upheaval. One of the major alterations to traditional life was the emergence of large, industrial, over populated cities that accommodated for the large influx of people to metropolitan areas following the agricultural and industrial revolutions. The resulting society was one of oppression and poverty; a darker period of human history to which Blake was utterly disgusted. As a compassionate, moral man he despised the injustices and basic rights violations that had become a part of modern life. Consequently these social grievances became the basis of a large number of Blake?s poems. ?London?, for instance, is one of Blake?s more blatant attacks on such a society and its value system. The dark mood and imagery of ?London? is effective at conveying the bleakness of the city:

?How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every black?ning church appalls,
And the hapless soldier?s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace Walls:?

As horrifically vivid as this is, the persona continues, commenting on the sadness within the citizens, and his ability to find: ?Marks of weakness, marks of woe? within their faces as they pass.

At the same time there was great concern and conflict within Britain?s political spheres, regarding either Britain?s participation in, or preparation for war throughout this entire period. The American War of Independence, in 1776 through to 1783, and the French Revolution over the sixteen years between 1789 to 1815 were valid indications of a failing political, social, economic and in some cases, moral polity. It was felt that the governments were unable to guarantee the safety and health of the mistreated citizenship and the 18th Century steadily became seen as a period of excess corruption, venality and lies. Consequently a number of courageous individuals stood up against the oligarchy, but to little success. Poets such as Blake, who supported the revolutions, attempted to undermine the British political system through the publication of poems like ?The French Revolution?, ?America, a Prophecy? and ?The Book of Urizen?, but to no avail. Unfortunately too few cared to know, or appreciated the poetry and sound reasoning of William Blake.

These inadequacies, however, were not simply limited to the realm of politics. At the time in which Blake was writing the church was hardly the virtuous institution we associate with religion today. It was not uncommon for the church to utilise vicious child labour, retain donated money and show little interest in the actual helping of the poor and needy. As a promoter of social justice and an extremely humane man, Blake was strongly opposed to the Christian church, an element that often comes through in his writing. He did not, however, refuse the existence of God. Instead he recognised an extremely unique, and arguably heretical belief that Christ, the Son, represented all that is good and spiritual, while the Father, God, was a symbol of absolute power, terror and tyranny. It is possible to recognise Blake?s interpretation of Christianity through his poetry. For instance in ?The Lamb? Blake identifies the role of ?the maker? not with God the father, but rather with Jesus, the Lamb of God.

?Little Lamb, who make thee??
?Little lamb, I?ll tell thee?
?he calls himself a lamb.?

The wide range of influences, ideas and life experiences outlined above all would have had an effect on the manner in which Blake wrote the poetry for which he is remembered today. The range of forms and techniques found within his works is directly proportional to the variety of life experiences and ideologies that define him as an individual.

It is also interesting though, in the understanding of the nature of his work, to discover what defines him as a poet. Writing during a period in which a profound shift of sensibility within literary works took place, Blake is widely considered an early, influential romanticist. Inspired by revolutions and the need for leadership and voice, the Romantic Movement championed progressive causes, whilst also being capable of being quite bitter and gloomy should these reformist attempts become frustrated. Emotionally it expressed extreme affirmation of the self, whilst spiritually it tended to encourage a sense and understanding of the infinite and supernatural. Blake was the definitive romanticist, unfortunately his chronological place in the movement?s progression allows him only to be referred to as an early or pre-romanticist. Despite this, Blake?s role in establishing and developing the Romantic Movement can not be ignored, in fact, it could be argued that Blake?s involvement within the preliminary stages of the period?s development means he is able to more readily meet the criteria that characterises a romantic writer. In reference to revolutionary inspiration, it is no secret that Blake openly supported the French and American revolutions overseas. He was also a heavy promoter of progressive causes, such as those of Voltaire and Rousseau?s, but he too was capable, and often demonstrated an amplitude of bitterness when his beliefs did not meet those of wider society. As was the case with ?Mock On,? and the religion defining ?The Four Zoas?. Similarly Blake opposed conformity and oppression, constantly exhibiting an appreciation for freedom and individuality, perhaps most obviously, however, in two of his more obscure poems ?The Human Abstract? and ?The Mental Traveller?.

Crucial to our understanding of William Blake, is the notion that he saw poetry and art as the avenue to social reform. Although throughout his life he demonstrated a passion for his work, Blake?s writings were by no means purely recreational, but rather social critiques and doctrines, analysing issues within his contemporary society. The public response, however, was hardly auspicious and Blake, like many other pre-romantic writers, was ostracised from the literature and general community. Proclaimed a heretic and a mad man, it is only recently that people have begun to recognise the significance, and the sheer beauty of his unique style and form of poetry. This beauty, however, does not lie solely on his selection of words. By combining his passions for art and poetry, Blake would pen his works and then illustrate the remaining space and borders. It is now encouraged that students study his works complete, as one unified piece. It is believed that the illustrations, despite being of little literary merit do provide a slight insight into what the poet might have been thinking when he wrote the poem.

Another interesting element in Blake?s poetry is the notion of contrast and opposition, he states: ?Without contraries [there] is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, all are necessary to human existence.? He argued that all things have a natural contrast, in the case of Blake?s poems this is justified by the plurality of his work; often publishing two poems on the same idea, but from different perspectives. It is generally regarded that Blake?s greatest poetic achievements are those of the Songs Of Innocence and the Songs Of Experience, collections of poems between which there is often an obvious contrast between a similarly titled poems, or poems dealing with a similar issue. ?The Sick Rose? compared to ?The Blossom? and the ?Holy Thursday? ?s (one from the Songs of Innocence and Experience respectively) are the classic examples of such contrary works.

With a large emphasis on rhythm, his poems tend to maintain an almost song like quality. Although the actual number of beats per line will vary between poems, within the same poem there is an almost formulaic approach that determines the number of beats required to maintain this natural, song-like rhythmic flow. Take, for example, the last stanza from ?My Spectre Around Me??:

?And let us go to the highest downs
With many pleasing wiles
The Women that does not love your Frowns
Will never embrace your smiles.?

Here it is possible to recognise the crisp, neat rhythms within Blake?s work. In this particular case the lines are made up of alternating number of beats. Whilst the first and third lines share the same number of eight beats per line, lines two and four, in a combination with their aurally shorter language and shorter sentence structure have only six beats per line. The result is almost an ?ABAB? rhythm pattern that is reminiscent of early nursery rhymes and simple songs. The fluctuating rhythmic feel of this poem, and indeed Blake?s poems in general, allow for a greater progression of thought, as well as enabling a smoother flow between sentences and ideas. Simultaneously it places additional emphasis on the concluding word on each line.

Generally the preponderance of content for Blake?s poems comes from the time in which they were written. While he originally appreciated and wrote about what little beauty was left in the modern world, Blake slowly became more sinister and pessimistic in his artistic interpretation of the world. As a social commentator, Blake would draw upon relevant issues and injustices to write about. Consequently, reoccurring themes involving, industrialisation, injustice, poverty, child labour, loss of individuality and social oppression are not uncommon amongst a collection of his work. For instance, ?The Chimney Sweeper? from the Songs of Experience was written during a period in which child labor was freely utilised without little thought for the harm it caused the children involved:

?A little black thing among the snow
Crying ?weep ?weep! in notes of woe:
Where are thy mother & father? Say??
They think they have done me no injury:?

By utilising the oppressed persona of the chimney sweeper himself it is possible for Blake to convey thoughts and dismay that would otherwise be ignored. This theme of aid to oppressed is typical of Blake, whose compassion was perhaps the most active quality throughout all stages of his life. Blake remained a significant religious artist and poet throughout his writing career, publishing works such as ?The Everlasting Gospel?, ?A Divine Image? and ?Jerusalem? to the stage that by the time of his death, the majority of his work contained or inferred some element of the supernatural or religion.

Blake has an extraordinary gift in the ability to explain complex events and ideas with the simplest yet most vivid language possible. His words are simple, succinct and subtle, and he uses a number of adjectives and adverbs to heighten emotion. As if an artist selecting his paint colour, Blake was able to select his words to match the mood, tone, rhythm and meaning of each particular poem. In ?London? the statement that ?every blackening church appalls,? has multiple interpretations on the basis of language. It is possible to interpret the fact that the church is becoming black simply as a result of its filthy surroundings, but it is also possible to equate the action of becoming black, to the act of becoming evil. Similarly the use of the word ?appalls? can mean to be horrified, but it may also mean the act of casting a burial shroud; in this case over the oppressed citizens of London.

?All visible things, all descriptions, all language, function figuratively, as metaphors and symbols which will reveal the invisible and ultimate realities on which life is built? This sense, that all things are symbolic also comes through as an element of Blake?s poetry. With a distinct absence of rational story from all his works it becomes apparent, very early on, that there is more to his poems than meets the eye. In his earlier, more simplistic works, such as those within the Songs of Innocence, Blake tended to use more familiar, obvious and simple symbols, such as the lamb to represent Christ. As Blake progressed as a writer over the five years between the publication of the Songs Of Innocence and the Songs Of Experience, he experimented more with the application of more complex symbols, such as those of nature, technology, and the human form in ?A Divine Image?. Soon Blake began to apply symbols that are not so easily interpreted, or carry multiple interpretations, finally stating ?that which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care.?

When the poems of William Blake were originally published they were met by massive public outcry, yet today we honour them as some of the greatest poet works since Shakespeare. Despite the difficulty in trying comprehend the nature of the atrocities dealt with within the poetry, in being so far removed from the context in which they were written it is possible for us to appreciate them not only on the grounds of their technical merit but also on their effectiveness at conveying their once controversial messages and ideas. Where as when they were originally being read and interpreted nobody wanted to know or appreciated William Blake?s analysis of the world condition. Today, distanced from the society in question, it is much easier to analyse the poetry of William Blake, yet far more difficult to empathise with what is being said.

The solution is to determine a modern meaning, an interpretation not envisaged by the author, but one that is relevant to today. Although the events described within his poems are no longer inside the realm of emotional comprehension, Blake?s cause, even beyond his death, remains the same, and as relevant as ever. This is Blake?s gift to his readers, for no matter what happens the essential issues are eternal, and thus instilling immortality onto the poetry of William Blake.

Authors | Quotes | Digests | Submit | Interact | Store

Copyright © Classics Network. Contact Us