One of the most outrageous poets and artists of his own time, William Blake (1757-1827) was regarded by his own contemporaries as a madman. He rebelled against society, government, established forms of poetry, and, above all, religion (Munson 30). His seditious and heretical ideals made him one of the most subversive writers of the Romantic and Pre-Romantic era. Although once briefly tried for uttering seditious remarks (Munson 29), he never experienced incarceration due to the uncanny ability he possessed to subtly transform such notions into poetry. Here, in this realm of subtlety and abstraction, Blake utilized poetry to express his own subversive ideals.
Eighteen at the time of the American Revolution and thirty-two by the time of French Revolution, Blake became immediately inspired and drawn to the fervor and spirit of the patriots, forming the roots of his dislike for his own government, in particular, King George III (Munson 20). This lifelong vendetta fueled the only poems he actually titled as “prophecies”: “America a Prophecy” and “Europe a Prophecy.” These poems were meant merely as warnings to the people and government of England, not actual prophecies, for Blake himself defined the nature of the prophecy as “if you go on So, the result is So” (Ederman 60). Both poems open with “Preludiums” centering on an unnamed female character, most likely representing personifications of the titled lands. In “America,” the woman character is almost consumed by the dominant male, but then proves to possess too strong a hold upon the male’s mind and conscious. So the male, in turn attempts to destroy the female. Using “America,” with its provocative and violent images of fire, black clouds, and blood, Blake neither pleas nor demands any action of the English government, nor of its people. Instead, Blake offers the image of an England where “The Sun has left his blackness, & has found a fresher morning / And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear & cloudless night; / For Empire is no more” (Blake 304). As opposed to making requests or demands, Blake reverts to a visual possibility. However, Blake warned not of England’s interference with the American quest for liberty, but of the impending possibility that history would itself. In simple terms, he warned “if kings such as Albion’s Prince repeat against the Republic of France, in 1793, the crusade that failed against the Republic of America, they will reach the end of their rule over…the strong” (Ederman 67).
Similarly, in “Europe,” the “Preludium” section focuses upon the power of the divine female. However, the focus of the power struggle shifts so that the intended target is not just Europe, but the entire world. The Queen of Heaven summons her children and Orc to “reimpose the cult of external reality” (Frye 122). Blake’s warning pertains to a greater destruction than merely the fall of England or France: Armageddon. Blake himself loved the “green and pleasant land” of England (Ederman 60), but not, as he said in “Vala or The Four Zoas,” the “turrets & towers & domes / whose smoke destroy’d the pleasant gardens, & whose running kennels / Chok’d the bright rivers” (Blake 400). This grim and violent view of the end of days distinguishes itself as the driving force of the poem Europe through Blake’s use of fire imagery and the theme of the bloody sun in the form of Orc.
Blake did not restrict himself merely to slightly seditious beliefs, but heretical ones as well. While not against the idea of religion per se–Blake was raised as an English Roman Catholic (Munson 28)–Blake disagreed with the doctrines of the Christian religious institutions. Most eloquently expressed in his poem “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Blake applies his own religious and spiritual ideals as “The voice of the Devil,” thereby camouflaging what he feels as no more than fiction. He believed that there was no such thing as “two perceivers in man, such as a soul and a body, which perceive different worlds” (Frye 126), which was the polar opposite of what the church proselytized. In “Marriage,” Blake states:
“All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.
1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
But the following Contraries to these are True
1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3. Energy is Eternal Delight.”
Such blatant questioning of the church’s authority and the truth of its doctrine greatly reflects his own personal beliefs. Blake saw only one world, but two different things to be done with it, emphasized by natural vision and human vision. Natural vision focused upon the objective world, independent from man, while human vision took the objective world and made it to be the “starry floor,” or, the bottom of reality (Frye 130). Therefore, people’s eyes had to be the same as the eye in “Auguries of Innocence” which could “see a World in a Grain of Sand” (Blake 150), thereby making it a “determinate organ” (Weiskel 140), allowing the people to perceive the mindless mechanisms of the natural world and, ultimately, infinity. To Blake’s contemporaries, his insistences that only when one’s vision is minute and particular does it conduct or contain infinity was perverse. As a result he was, for the rest of his life, stigmatized as a madman.
In poems such as “The Tyger,” Blake again subtly disguises his dissident beliefs. Through the use of increasingly crushingly rhetorical questions, Blake’s cruel sarcasm and bitterness becomes directed towards the hand that dared “seize the fire” (Blake 109), thus creating the Tyger itself. However, the speaker is “incapable of deliberate irony” (Bloom 17), for every single question is a gross hyperbole. Each hyperbole grows greater and greater, while the speaker becomes more cynical and harsher, demeaning the Tyger further and further, until everything reduces to the cruelty of the pinnacle lines, “Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” (Blake 109). The entire work–modeled upon a particular passage in The Book of Job where God hurls down insults at Job–questions the origin of the divine, inversing its own inspiration. By confronting the Tyger, Blake has confronted the ultimate force, which he would have stated to be his own Imagination (Bloom 26). Thus, the only particularly profound repression that comes up against the will of the “daemonizing speaker” (Bloom 25) is Blake himself, challenging the origin of the divine and its place within the world. Blake did not hold with the doctrine that God was an entity who was separate from mankind (Bentley), which is highly exemplified by both “Tyger” and “Marriage,” wherein he states that “men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast” (Blake 256), portraying the Church as the ultimate con-artist for the whole world.
Blake’s views on sexuality tie in greatly to his subversive religious ideals. In particular, he found some of his greatest distaste for the Church stemmed from their belief in the suppression of natural desires and discouraging of earthly joy, as found in “Proverbs from Hell” in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” “Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion. / As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys” (Blake 253). Furthermore, in his poem entitled “Abstinence,” the personified idea of Abstinence itself did no more than destroy life by “sow[ing] sand all over” as opposed to Desire’s “plant[ing] fruits of life and beauty” (Blake 134). Since, in Blake’s mind, the body and soul were not separate, the body itself was merely an extension of the soul; the emphasis of the orthodoxy in the denial of bodily desires, therefore, stemmed from the Church’s own misapprehension of the relationship between the body and the soul. The Church thrived on the doctrine that a person had maintain his or her own personal virtue in order to enter Heaven; Virtue by itself meant nothing to Blake “unless clarified and qualified by context” (Gleckner 83). In “The Divine Image,” virtue is exemplified as the state of innocence through Blake’s use of repetition of the words Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love. However, in “A Divine Image,” virtue is perverted to experience. The sexually provocative imagery of iron, forges, fire, furnaces, and gorges all demonstrate the power of passion and desire as well as its ability to quickly turn to Cruelty, Jealousy, Terror, and Secrecy.
Within the lines of his poem “Night,” Blake weaves together constant streams of gold, nature, and flower imagery. The flower–usually a representation of fertility–and its allegorical uses are extended further, applied to the overall comparison and relationship between a lion and a lamb. The lion, an ultimate symbol of masculinity, lies down beside the feminine lamb, stating, “And now beside thee, bleating lamb, / I can lie down and sleep” (Blake 94), thus joining the two sexes and forms together in a soft and gentle union. According to David Wagenknecht, this final act, along with the other various images contrasting and joining the male and the female offer “confirmation of the suspicion that “Night” is about sexual experience” (155). This thought, however, appears incomplete. “Night” is not only about sexual experience, but about a gentle, consensual sexual experience, as opposed to the violent and brutal destruction which “The invisible worm” (Blake 107) brings upon the rose in Blake’s more well-recognized, “The Sick Rose.” In this poem, the act of sex is not only surrounded by a “howling storm” (Blake 107), foreshadowing the eventual demise of the rose, but utilizes the “dark” imagery to vividly present the destructive effects of rape.
A religious and political rebel for his time, Blake’s prolific work subtly expresses his own heretical and seditious beliefs. Here, in the realm of poetry, Blake found the perfect means by which he could publicly express his subversive ideas.
Bentley, Gerald Eades. William Blake: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1975. 34-35.
Blake, William. The Portable Blake. Ed. Alfred Kazin. New York: Penguin Group Inc., 1946. 91-94, 107, 109, 120, 134-135, 150-154, 249-266, 300-327, 369-410.
Bloom, Howard. “Introduction.” Modern Critical Views: William Blake. Ed. Howard Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 1-55.
Ederman, David V. “Blake: The Historical Approach.” Modern Critical Views: William Blake. Ed. Howard Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 56-80.
Frye, Northrop. “The Keys to the Gate.” Modern Critical Views: William Blake. Ed. Howard Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 116-135.
Gleckner, Robert F. “Point of View and Context in Blake’s Songs.” Modern Critical Views: William Blake. Ed. Howard Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 81-115.
Munson, Amelia. “Introduction.” Poems of William Blake. Ed. Amelia Munson. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Company, 1964. 1-32.
Wagenknecht, David. “Transformations.” Modern Critical Views: William Blake. Ed. Howard Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 151-175.
Weiskel, Thomas. “Blake’s Critique of Transcendence.” Modern Critical Views: William Blake. Ed. Howard Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 136-150.