Consider William Blake as a Social Critic
Blake was a pioneer of romantic revival in English literature. He wrote lyrics and then prophetic poems but they were not to the taste of his time. He was the first to introduce the romantic note of mysticism in English poetry. He is a man of the age of transition. The French revolution had a great impact on the lives of English men. Since then the society started to change. Blake became a product of that changing society. He was a difficult man: odd and sensitive. He was a sort of rebel. He sometimes spoke as if no one had thought of the things he thought. His imaginations are sometimes as disturbing as dreams which are unreal because they are too real. He never tried to fit into the world. To Blake conventional morality seemed almost entirely unrelated to the true nature of man. Blake, therefore, became the courageous prophet of a new morality. Different institutes like marriage, parentage, church, etc. appeared before him with new meaning. He looked at life with the eyes of experience, he found much to displease and hunt him.
Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience” show two contrary states of human mind. In the “Songs of Innocence,” Blake shows man’s pre-Fall state. The human soul is in a world of innocence where pain, sufferings, and agony do not touch them. But the world of experience is after Fall. Man is tasting bitter experience here. In the world of experience God is even tyrannous(Tiger). His poems of “Songs of Experience” are born of a deep anguish, from a storm in the poet’s soul. They are a product of violent emotions. He thinks over the facts of social life and these poems are essentially realistic. Some of these poems are “Earth’s Answer”, “The Sick Rose”, “The Angel”, “Garden of Love”, “London”, “The Human Abstract”, “A Divine Image” etc. Blake attacks various institutes such as state, church, marriage parentage etc. in these poems.
“Earth’s Answer” gives a realistic picture of the hindering influences which retard and impoverish human life. “Starry Jealousy” and “Selfish Father of men” means God or in another way the church and the religious doctrines symbolize both reason and the restraints of life. Earth pleads for freedom and wants to be liberated from the “heavy chain” which binds free love and so fertility is hindered.
The “Sick Rose” is a poem where the rose symbolizes a young woman who deprived of love and as a result becomes sick. “That flies in the night”symbolizes the priests as black robs. They destroy spontaneity of love and make people sick. This is the lot of a rose in the world of experience. But in the world of innocence, the blossom symbolizes lover and lovers are admired and the embrace takes place beneath the green leaves. Thus Blake attacks the priests and the people who are fundamentalists. He treats the priests in the same manner in “The Angel”
I dried my tears, and armed my fears
With ten thousand shields and spears
For the time of youth was fled,
And grey hairs were on my head
Blake shows that lovers are afraid to show their passion, emotion because the religious doctrines bound them to restrict the spontaneity of love. As a result, delight fades away and youth faces destruction.
Priests have condemned in the Garden of Green also this garden according to Blake, was a peace like Echoing Green in the world of innocence. Old and youth everybody used to enjoy the cerement there. But in the world of experience, a chapel is built in the middle of the garden and instead of flower plants, there is a tombstone. Natural pleasures have received a deadly blow. The religious people come up with laws and these laws forbid the natural play of the human affections and turn joy into misery.
The human qualities we see in the world of innocence are not found in the world of experience. In the world of innocence –
“For mercy has a human heart,
Pity, a human face
And love, the human form divine,
And peace, the human dress.
Love, one of the human qualities takes the form of cruelty, jealousy, terror and secrecy. The world of experience is a selfish world where the tiger kills the lambs. Man becomes immortal, hypocrisy and cruelty are everywhere. In the poem, “The Human Abstract”, Blake shows how man victimises others for his own satisfaction. He waits for a chance to prey on other. In the world of experience man willingly makes people poor and helpless, therefore, pity and mercy can be shown to them. But in the world of innocence, the question of showing pity and mercy does not arise.
Blake bitterly deals with the state, religion, family institutions in his poem, “London” and “Chimney Sweeper”. In the world of innocence, the child used to spend his time in a playful mood. But in the experienced world, society puts the black suit on him and teaches him the notes of woe. He cannot even correctly pronounce the word ‘sweep’ and so it sounds ‘weep’ presents not hesitating to send the child to earn money for them and they go to the church for prayer. Blake here attacks state, religion, and family because they are depriving the child of its right. They are being cruel to the child.
In the poem“London” he has the same treatment with the state, church, and marriage institution. The natural river Thames is called “the chartered Thames”. There is no happy face in London. The chimney sweepers and harlots cry. But king and church are deaf to these cries. What Blake wants to say is that these institutes are not working for humanity. They are all selfish and they work for themselves.
These, then, are the poem of social protest, which show that Blake had done some hard thinking on the problem which society faced in his day. Blake is something of a revolutionary in his outlook. He wanted the world of experience to be changed into an innocent one once again. He should not accept where he belonged.