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Alison Castardi
English 250-A
March 18, 2003
Essay #1
Social Tyranny and Visions of Brotherhood in the Poetry of William Blake
Romanticism was an intellectual movement that spread throughout
Europe towards the end of the eighteenth century through to the middle of
the nineteenth century. It was an age in which philosophers, artists,
writers, and composers responded with enthusiasm to the forces of
nationalism that were sweeping across Europe, but rejected the notions of
the enlightenment that had dominated European thought since the early
eighteenth century. Sarah Lawall and Maynard Mack state that romanticism
“implies new emphasis on imagination, on feelings, on the value of the
primitive and untrammeled, and particularly a narrowing of outlook from the
universal to the particular, from humankind or ‘man’ to nation or ethnic
group, and from the stability of community to the ‘fulfillment’ of the
individual” (417). Romantics generally believe in the uniqueness of
individual expression, as it is constituted by life experiences, M.H.

Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt state:
Many of the writers, however, did feel that there was
something distinctive about their time-not a shared doctrine
or literary quality, but a pervasive intellectualand
imaginative climate, which some of them called ‘the spirit of
the age’. They had the sense that ‘Great spirits now on
earth or sojourning,’ and that there was evidence of a
release
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of energy, experimental boldness, and creative power that
marks a literary renaissance (5).


This period of Romanticism was a spiritual revolution for many of the
philosophers, writers, artists and composers who existed in a world of
limited possibilities, or as it is better known, a world encompassing the
apocalyptic vision. Romantic poetry throughout this age was regarded in
various different ways. According to M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt,
many eighteenth century theorists regarded it as “primarily an imitation of
human life” or a “mirror held up to nature” (7). English poet, William
Wordsworth, creatively refers to poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of
powerful feelings” (7). Countless other Romantic theories consider poetry
as an emphasis on the human mind and its inner feelings, emotions, and
imagination; a reflection of childhood experiences; language of common
people and their common experiences; stressing on the idea of individualism
and the freedom from rules; commonly speaking of a sense of wonder, the
supernatural and the gothic; frequent themes of exile and isolation; and
finally, the harmonious use of the incorporation nature, landscape and
human passion and intuition. Essentially, poetry has gone from thought
emerging from the eighteenth century “head” to the nineteenth century
“heart.” William Blake was a famous Romantic poet of the eighteenth
century. Often in his poetry he introduces Romantic themes involving
visions of brotherhood and social tyranny and it’s effects on the
individual spirit.


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William Blake was born in 1757 and raised in London, England.

Throughout his career, he wrote a series of illuminated works: Poetical
Sketches in 1783 where his poetry protested against war, tyranny, and King
George III’s treatment of American colonies. Songs of Innocence was
written in 1789 and was followed by Songs of Experience in 1794, in which
he creatively incorporated engraved pictures to represent the lyrics of his
poetry.

Blake was a nonconformist who, like many romanticists, privileged
imagination over reason in the creation of both his poetry and his images,
emphasizing that ideal forms should be created not from observations of
nature but from inner visions. He often expressed his opposition to the
English monarchy and to the recurring eighteenth century political and
social tyranny. Despite his rejection to the harsh realities of oppression
and racism, he still supports the notion of man existing in a sense of
brotherhood with one another. Many of his poems portray these common
motifs of social tyranny and brotherhood, such as, “The Chimney Sweeper”
from Songs of Experience and “The Little Black Boy” from Songs of
Innocence.

Blake communicates his opposition against the working tyranny that
dominates children employed in the workforce in his “Chimney Sweeper” poem
from Songs of Experience. The poem depicts the miserable account of an
innocently pure and unhappy boy who has been sold off to a life of labor by
his parents. The boy is forced to work hard as a chimneysweep so his
religious parents can frequently attend church: “‘Where
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are thy father and mother? say?’/ ‘They are both gone up to the church to
pray'” (52).

Nicholas Marsh points out that Blake criticizes “the established
Church, which he saw as a hypocritical institution supporting a corrupt and
unjust status quo. So we know that Blake held subversive beliefs, and was
indignantly angry at injustice, oppression and tyranny” (107). He carries
the burdens of his misery within his soul making him appear seemingly
happy. His parents assume they have done no harm to his life because of
his joyful outward appearance leaving them with a clear conscious:
“‘Because I was happy upon the heath, / And smiled among the winter’s snow;
/ They clothed me in the clothes of death, / And taught me to sing the
notes of woe'” (52). They were undoubtedly unaware that their child was
truly feeling exactly the opposite than he revealed as a result of their
actions. Although the boy was ultimately depressed in his enslavement, he
did not blame his parents for what they have done. Rather, he innocently
blames his own actions for his parent’s lacking awareness: “‘And because I
am happy and dance and sing, / They think they have done me no injury'”
(52). He believes that his parents don’t mean to cause him such pain; they
simply don’t realize that they are. Ironically, the force that caused his
parents to sell him in to a life of slavery is the same force that is
responsible for allowing him to live that way. His parents “…are gone to
praise God and his Priest and King, / Who made up a heaven of our misery”
(52). Unfortunately the young boy, like many children of the time, was
forced to bear the hardships that England’s social tyranny had forced upon
them.

Blake is undeniably conveying his outrage with the harm social
institutions cause
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children in England. He places emphases on the abandonment of the child
and the false, restrictive piety of the adult world. As many of Blake’s
motifs reveal, Sarah Lawall and Maynard Mack point out that the “child
understands the protective self-blinding of adults” (541). Adults do not
possess innocence or a similar perception of the world as children do.

Rather, they serve as the socially tyrannical forces that exist in the
world. Sarah Lawall and Maynard Mack state, “the discrepancy between the
child’s purity and his brutal exploitation indicts the society that allows
such things. Innocence may be its own protection these poems suggest, but
that fact does not obviate social guilt” (541).

Another motif commonly found in Blake’s poetry is the visions of
brotherhood amongst mankind, which he portrays in his poem “The Little
Black Boy” from Songs of Innocence. This tells a tale of an African boy
coming to terms with his identity during a time where slavery existed and
black people were considered evil. The boy acknowledges his race stating
that although he is black his soul is still pure and innocent: “And I am
black, but O! my soul is white;'” (45). The boy acknowledges the white
English boy as being better than he because of the color of his skin:
“White as an angel is the English child, / But I am black, as if bereav’d
of light” (45). He believes that his isn’t as deserving of God’s love
because his skin is black and not white like the other boy. His mother
teaches him a valuable lesson one day about God being the ultimate creator
and to accept his love. Essentially the mother is saying that all of God’s
creations should exist in harmonious brotherhood because God love’s all his
creations equally:
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‘Look on the rising sun: there God does live,
And gives His light, and gives His heat away,
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning, joy in the noonday,
‘And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love;
And these black bodies and this sunburnt face
Are but a cloud, and like a shady grove.

‘For, when our souls have learned the beat to bear,
The cloud will vanish, we shall hear His voice,
Saying, “come out from the grove, my love and care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.” (45)
His once conflicting feelings towards blackness is now altered; he now
perceives his blackness as something beautiful in itself. His joyful
acceptance is represented through the sunshine that his mother talks about,
the sunshine that brought upon this change in his perceptions. The boy
uses his mother’s advice and applies it to his relationship with the white
English boy. He wishes to explain to the boy that they are equals,
essentially brothers, existing in a world created by God. He then explains
that neither of them will be free until they both learn to accept the
‘brightness’ of God’s love. Mark Van Doren,
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believes “equality cannot be defended, it can only be felt and the little
black boy knows everything about how it feels” (85). The black boy is
better prepared to accept God’s love due to his newly discovered awakening
he now feels responsible for preparing the white boy for that love:
And thus I say to little English boy
When I from black, and he from white cloud free
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy
I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our Father’s knee. (45)
The boy is ultimately proud of being black and wants to show the white boy
that God is their shared creator making them immediately connected, like
that of brotherhood. Blake described that all skin colors are considered
to be a cloud that cannot obscure the essentially brotherhood of man in a
fully enlightened society, such as Heaven: “And these black bodies and this
sun-burnt face” are “but a cloud” (46). If the black boy is to be free of
his black cloud, the white English boy must also be free from his white
“white cloud” (45): “When I from black and he from white cloud free,” the
black boy believes he will “be like him, and he will then love me” (46).

As soon as the two boys accept God’s love, then they will be able to
continue living in fraternity with one another. In essence, the
brotherhood of man is the only solution to all the world’s problems.

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The poem also takes on a tyrannical element as well. The poem was
written during an age where slavery was still in practice and African’s
were harshly considered inferior to white society. The poem accounts the
situation where the white boy can only love someone white like him, and the
black boy’s fears of only being loved if he is white. However, Blake is
trying to express that unless the boys exist in an equal brotherhood
relationship free of color, then they are not considered universally free.

According to Sarah Lawall and Maynard Mack, the poem suggests that the two
boys, “difference disappears into likeness, hostility into love” (541).

William Blake’s poems “The Chimney Sweeper” and “The Little Black
Boy” both represent the world as he envisions it. M.H. Abrams and Stephen
Greenblatt state, “two contrary states of the human soul” (37). In his
poems he expresses his opposition to social tyranny and his support for
humanitarian brotherhood. He indicts the world for its ability to burden
the individual with the misery created by human beings. These poems, like
many, are written from the innocence of a child’s point-of-view. According
Sarah Lawall and Maynard Mack, his ultimate message would essentially be
that “children in their innocence feel no anger or bitterness at the
realities of the world in which they find themselves” (541). Children, in
their innocence, are realistic about life. Fundamentally, Blake believes
that children are ultimately doomed by the social tyranny of England.


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Works Cited
Abrams, M.H., and Stephen Greenblatt. “The Romantic Period (1785-1830).”
TheNorton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams, et
al. 7th ed. Vol. 2.New York: Norton 2000. 1- 23. All Abrams
and Greenblatt quotations are fromthis source.


Abrams, M.H. and Greenblatt, Stephen. “William Blake (1757-1827).” The
NortonAnthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 2. 35-39.


Blake, William. “The Chimney Sweeper” The Norton Anthology of English
Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 2. 52. All Blake quotations are from
this source.


Blake, William. “The Little Black Boy” The Norton Anthology of English
Literature.7th ed. Vol. 2. 45.


Lawall, Sarah and Mack, Maynard. “Masterpieces of the Nineteenth Century:
Varieties of Romanticism.” The Norton Anthology of World
Masterpieces. Ed. SarahLawall, et al. 7th ed. Vol. 2. New
York: Norton 1999. 417-426. All Lawall and Mack quotations are from
this source.


Lawall, Sarah and Mack, Maynard. “William Blake (1757-1827).” The Norton
Anthology of World Masterpieces. 7th ed. Vol. 2. 540-542.


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Marsh, Nicholas. “Society and its Ills: ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ (Songs of
Innocence).”Analyzing Texts: William Blake: The Poems. New York:
Palgrave 2001. 107-160.


Van Doren, Mark. “On ‘The Little Black Boy’.” Discussions of Literature:
Discussionsof William Blake. Boston: D.C. Heath ; Company 1961. 82-
85