Blake has often been described to be the “Precursor of Romanticism.” The Romantic poets of the nineteenth century struck a note of protest against the conventional literature as well as the social injustices. Blake, having written immediately preceding the Age of Romanticism, paved the way for them, at least for Wordsworth, Shelley, and Byron. Although his voice against the oppression of institutional laws and rules was not so strong, he made a pointed attack on the social injustices and cruelty towards the down-trodden people in the name of philanthropy.
Blake was primarily an artist, so his way of fighting against the social vices is through the media of art. He uses symbols to indicate the tyranny of the so-called social and political institutions over human liberty and freedom. In the poems ‘Songs of Innocence’ and ‘Songs of Experience’ we find a lot of symbols representing the oppressing agent. In ‘London’ we get a vivid and pungent picturization of the 18th century London. (Its roads and rivers are ‘chartered’- indicating the tyranny that rules over the people.) The cries of London are the cries of misery. Its children are miserable; its citizens are the victims of oppression by State or Church. A society has been created in which corruption has become so rampant that marriage is without love and harlot’s curses lie heavily on the newborn children. In ‘The School Boy’ we get a milder attack on the system of education. Schooling, as Blake observes it, thwarts the natural growth of the child and binds him to rigid unimaginative discipline. He ridicules the artificial ethos of religion that professes a total denial of man’s sensual life and strongly advocates for the combination of the sense and the spirit. He stands against those aspects of the contemporary society detrimental to the uninterrupted growth of mental powers of man.
The industrial growth of England during the eighteenth century had many ills. One of them was the inhuman use of children in machines and factories causing worst suffering to them against which Charles Dickens had to fight much later. Not only the children, but the poor people as a whole also suffered. The lack of healthy working environment even that of ventilation in the mills led the poor people, especially children to lose health and strength. The low wages compelled them to live their lives in extreme poverty. At this juncture of affairs, Blake was one among a few that fought to set the things right by highlighting the misery of the sufferers.
The ‘Songs of Innocence’ deals with the pure innocence of children and the heavenly, secure and gleeful pastoral world of sport and merry-making. But even in the midst of joy, he does not forget ‘The Little Black Boy’ or ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. The little black boy speaks out against racial discrimination. The little boy laments the black color of his skin which makes him inferior to the white angelic English boy. But he learns from his mother that the skin is a cloud and it is the soul that counts. The poem, ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ throws light upon the miserable life of young children who are subject to inhuman treatment in the society of Industrialised England. Blake portrays greedy fathers who sell their children for a few pounds and abandon them to the eternal hell of suffering. Since the chimneys were too narrow, only small children like Tom Dacre were employed as chimney sweepers. He says:
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.
The ‘Songs of Experience’ is the fruit of his experience about the society in which he lived. He saw with his own eyes and experience taught him how innocent joy ultimately turned into miserable cries. In experience, we notice guilt, misery, and tyranny in lies of joys, security and the air of innocence in Innocence. Here the mood is one of total disillusionment. The beatific vision of the angels and guardians is no more since they are replaced by mighty tyrants like Urizen or Iehovah. In Blake, Urizen is the symbol of the arch-tyrant and his ministers are those in authority on earth- the king, the priest, the parent, the nurse and so on.) In facts Urizen has been mentioned specifically only in three poems namely ‘Earth’s Answer’, ‘Human Abstract’, and ‘A Divine Image’. He is ‘starry jealous’ or ‘cruel’. His loath life and joy have brought the world under his iron law of prohibition.
In the poem, ‘Holy Thursday’ Blake hurts his defiance at the unjustifiable attitude of society towards the poor children of the charity school. The cold-blooded and insincere philanthropists treat the children with utmost negligence and cruelty the poet is furious against. He says;
Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
The poet calls the so-called rich England ‘a land of poverty’ where the sun never shines and eternal winter exists. He even speaks against Christianity which trumpets the gospel of love and kindness but the church where people come to pray in indifferent towards the empty-bellied children. Thus church and religion are nothing but hollow and devoid of love.
In the poem, ‘Angel’, Blake speaks against conventional morality that works as an obstacle in the maiden’s way of her enjoyment of her own passions. In the poem, ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ belonging to ‘Experience’, the poet condemns the cruel parents who leave their children as a waif in the street and take themselves to the church to praise God, the king, and the priest. The child answers to the question about his parents;
They clothed me in the clothes of death
And taught me to sing the notes of woe,
Blake rejects the conventional codes of orthodox Christianity and attacks it for causing oppression to man, ‘The Garden of Live’, ‘A Little Girl Lost’, ‘A Divine Image’ are some of Blake’s most powerful poems showing his revolutionary view of religion.
To sum up, Blake, revolted against all those institutions, customs, and conventions of the society, the tyranny of the king and the church that cause sufferings to man. He voiced his protest as a passionate rebel and wanted the end of all miseries physical and spiritual.