William Blake, the son of a London hosiery tradesman was a strange imaginative child, whose soul was at home with books and flowers and fairies than with the crowd of the city streets. The seeds of Romanticism had been sown into his nature much earlier than Romanticism was officially proclaimed by the publication of the Lyrical Ballads in 1798 by Wordsworth and Coleridge. If the Romantic poetry of the early nineteenth century is to be understood in contrast with the poetry of the neo-classical period, Blake is a great romantic poet because his poetry is richer in the elements of romanticism than in the classical elements. Even it can be said that he has the least classical qualities in his poetry and his poems, can perhaps equal the poems of the Romantic poets in many aspects.
Romanticism lays stress on the elements of imagination, nature worship, humanitarianism, liberty, mysticism and symbolism. The exploitation of all kinds- social, religious and political and by the introduction of a new poetic diction in theme and style as opposed to the reasoned, logical and superficial poetry of the eighteenth century. If the poems of the ‘Songs of Innocence’ and of the ‘Songs of Experience’ are read with attention, the readers will be convinced that almost all the qualities of Romanticism are available in his poems. For this, perhaps, he has been rightly called the ‘Precursor of Romanticism’. It is the poetry of Blake that proclaims the down of Romanticism in the eighteenth century.
Speaking historically, Romanticism has begun with Blake because he for the first time broke away from the literary tradition and poetic diction of the so-called Augustan age. The Romantics believed in the freedom of art in their creations. The poetry of the preceding period suffered from an excessive adherence to rules and monotony of heroic couplets. All the branches of literature were confined to the four walls of classical norms. But Blake refused to adhere. He said we do not want either Greek or Roman models if we are but just and true to our own imaginations. In diction, he introduces a new style. The theme and style of the ‘Songs of Innocence’ and the ‘Songs of Experience’ are simple and easy to understand. The common man’s sons and daughters who work in the mills and factories live in the orphanage and become the victims of social oppression, are taken as the subject-matter of the poetry. In short poems like ‘The Chimney Sweepers’ and ‘The Echoing Green’ the joys and sufferings of poor children have found expression before Wordsworth.
Imagination is the most vital characteristic of Romanticism coupled with intuition; imagination plays a dominant role in Blake’s poetry. The poetic creed of Blake is based on imagination. According to him, “mental things are alone real”. Blake is a visionary and imaginative poet. He wants to restore ‘the golden age’. Blake’s imaginative faculty is evinced in his concept of God explained in the poem the ‘Divine Image’. Here he asserts that God is the creative and spiritual power in man:
And all must love human form,
In heathen, Turk or Jew
Where mercy, love and pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.
Nature was not a considerable factor in the poetry of the Neo-classical period but love or worship or in other words, ‘The deep interest in nature’ is one of the salient features of Romantic poetry. In Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’ and ‘Songs of Experience’ nature is associated with human activities. The sound of the bell in the spring season and the merry voices of thrush and sparrow do co-operation with the songs of children. In the poem, ‘The Echoing Green’ nature echoes the happiness of children:
The sun does arise,
And make happy the skies.
The merry bells ring
To welcome the spring.
Therefore, nature is a part of the human universe and sympathies with the human heart in Blake. The pastoral setting in his poetry gives an added spiritual color and conforms to the innocence of the children. In describing the scenes of beauty Blake is skillful as Spenser. The poem, ‘The Laughing Song’ provides an example. It is a vibrant scene. Nature in ‘Songs of Innocence’ smells of Eden where sin is absent in man’s conscience. It is full of romantic joy. There is the other aspect of nature in his poem. It has symbolical undertones in the ‘Garden of Love’ in the ‘Songs of Experience’, its spiritual significance is asserted by the fact that the poet, in a valley meets the child on a cloud who inspires in the beginning of the ‘Songs of Innocence’.
Blake was the poet of revolt and he thundered, like Shelley in the ‘Queen Mab’ at kings and priest in his ‘Songs’. He mercilessly attacked priest craft and hackneyed conventions of the contemporary church. He considered them as to be the greatest obstacle in the way of human progress. The poem, ‘The Little Bay Lost’ is a direct blow at the cruelty of religion which seeks to replace natural love by the authority of Priests.
Blake has made use of symbols to express his ideas like Shelley. ‘The Little Black Boy’ and ‘Clod and The Pebble’ are symbolical. The symbolic use of natural objects says Brooke “is very interesting and imaginative. The sun, the moon, the stars, mountains, streams, and flowers are loaded with spiritual meaning.”
In a mechanical age like the eighteenth century, Blake had a small number of readers because they could not appreciate his genius. But later on, he has been placed at the top of the poets who are considered to be the ‘precursors of Romanticism’. Actually, he rang the kneel of the parting century in his poetry to herald a new age in English poetry, later on, known to be the Romantic revival.