An Essay on William Blake’s Symbolism Depicted in Some of His Poems
Introduction to Songs of Experience and its sequel, Earth’s Answer have to be considered together. Introduction and Earth’s Answer strike the keynote of the Songs of Experience. In the Introduction, the Bard, being the poet who is inspired as a prophet who has the power of seeing present, past and future, has also been symbolized as the Christ who asks the mankind to wake up from its slumberous sleep. He has heard God’s message and if mankind will only hear this message, a new dawn of happiness will break. Man has “lapsed” from his original happy state in the Garden of Eden, but there is a hope of recovering that state.
Like the Piper in the earlier Introduction, the Bard here is a poet, but the Bard’s poetry is prophetic and brings a message. His “inspiration” comes from the Divinity. He speaks with authority in the first line of the poem and like God he calls to the “lapsed soul” and pleads with a fallen Earth to return to the way of light. He speaks on behalf of a loving God—the “Holy Word”, that is the Son of God, Christ who is described in Milton’s Paradise Lost as walking in the garden in the evening of the day of Adam and Eve’s Fall. The Bard takes Milton a stage further, and describes the “Holy Word” as “weeping in the evening dew” (dew in Blake is often a symbol of materialism). The weeping is perhaps due to Christ’s agony in the garden at the Fall and at the judgement of Adam and Eve. Before the Fall, God was known to Earth; He walked among the “ancient trees” of Eden and was the intimate of Adam and Eve till they become “lapsed soul”. After the Fall, however, Earth does not respond to the love of the “Holy Word” or know him for what he is.
The main idea of the poem, however, is that: Mankind is in a fallen state. But people should not give themselves up to despair and they should not be indifferent to a new dawn, which can come only if they strive (struggle) to bring it about.
In the Earth’s Answer, Earth may be symbolized as a woman because earth gives the birth to nature and to all existing on it. The woman is lack of freedom therefore she wants to get freedom and liberty. She wants to unlock the key, which locks her, but she has no power to do so, and it makes her in a great despair. She lacks of warmness and freshness that cause man far away from her because man likes a warm as well as a fresh woman. Therefore she is weeping to realize her destiny. She says that she is imprisoned by her fears of the false god of conventional religion and morality, Jehovah. “The water shore” and “starry” in the lines 6-7 symbolize oppression and tyranny. “Starry Jealousy” and “Selfish Father” represent the jealous god, a god of fear, Jehovah who is also called Urizen by Blake. Blake effectively builds up here a picture of desolation, an atmosphere of darkness and of grey despair. Earth laments the fact that her bones are “frozen around with a heavy chain” and that “free love is bound with bondage”. The false god, Urizen, though this name is not used in the poem, is the false god of conventional religion, and his law is a series of prohibitions. The jealous Jehovah or Urizen gives sexual natures to his creatures but at the same time imposes restraints upon them. In other words, he is a tyrant who forbids unrestricted sexual pleasure to the virgins of youth and morning and who is responsible for the bondage imposed on free love. “The virgins of youth and morning” are the symbols of the youthful girls who are fresh like the morning and who have an unlimited capacity for enjoying sexual pleasure. Earth’s lament concludes thus:
That free love with bondage bound.
(Earth’s Answer, lines 23-25)
Earth wants the oppressive chain, which restricts her freedom, to be shattered. Free love should not have been bound or curbed or put in chains. It was selfishness and arrogance on the part of Jehovah to have imposed restrains on free love. Such restrictions are an everlasting curse to mankind.
We can sum up that Blake, who was a great believer in natural impulses, hated all kinds of restraints. He condemns all those who exercise restraints upon others because God has created human beings with the same right. Therefore he censures any tyrant and oppression to mankind. Blake gives attribute to Urizen, who symbolizes Reason in Blake’s later poetry, as all negative such as jealousy, fearfulness, cruelty, secrecy, and hatred of life and of joy. He is described as “Starry Jealousy” and “Cruel, jealous, selfish Fear”.
London is a poem that depicts sordid and sad conditions of life. The word ‘chartered’ comes from business, trade and commerce, but here it means the street which has its economic value. Water in the rivers represents sense of life. Water sustains us, and the Thames stand for a symbol of life and rejuvenation. London represents a genteel character, as it is still a city based on traditional values although it has its vices too. But, although the city is very old, strong and well planned yet from a cursory glance it is evident that it is hollow from inside as the people have marks of weakness and misery on their faces. Every word is insisted upon because no one escapes the misery and woe in this city. Children are innocent and do not know “fear”, but in this city, children are depicted in a gloomy condition as the blackened chimney sweepers. Here child is snatched away its innocence, and experience has been thrust into his mind as to weep for sufferings. The poet sees “marks of weakness, marks of woe” in every face. He hears “the mind-forged manacles” in every voice, whether of man or child. Then there is the soldier who sheds his blood in obedience to his King. Then the Church, which is supposed to purify and chasten the people, is itself blackened because it fails to do so. The word “hapless” represents the soldier’s hidden feelings of not to participate in war and battle. It also shows that the soldier is useless as there is no work for him to do. According to Blake, prostitution is the most heinous (monstrous) crime. The harlots do not do it willingly but they are forced to do so as to earn their bread. Then there is the tragedy of loveless marriage, which compel men to go to prostitutes and beget illegitimate children. Oppression and tyranny are symbolized by the king who is responsible for the soldier’s blood being shed, social institution like loveless marriage, and “the mind-forged manacles”.
In London, Blake criticizes the corruption of civilization by the power of Reason, whose mind-forged manacles have restricted every natural joy into a terrible agony. The street-cries of the chimney-weepers are accusations against the Church; and the death-sigh of the soldier is a stain upon State. Love itself, when so bound, makes the marriage-bed a diseases-blighted hearse. This poem is not only a protest but also a picture of a mental state.
Perhaps the most striking image in the Song of Experience is The Tiger. To the mind in the state of innocence, the Lamb appears to be a fit symbol of life. To the mind, which has experienced the disappointments, the sorrows, and injustices of life, the tiger appears as the symbol. The tiger is relentless, strong, remorseless, but beautiful and it is already the nature that every God’s creature has its beauty. But although the tiger is beautiful, it is a symbol of the violent and terrifying forces for man, as the phrase, “fearful symmetry”. Tiger also is symbol of generation, full of life, energy and passion. Tiger actually does not exist in the cloud or in the sky. The existence that is meant here is the existence of the spirit of God. God may exist everywhere. Blake here tries to represent things in sense of their spirit, not merely as objects as to say that this is the thing, etc. Actually Blake, in this poem, talks about human beings and the spirit they have. Then, there is a hidden meaning behind putting the brain of the tiger into furnace. It interprets that after getting out the furnace, the tiger’s brain is remoulded into a benefactor tiger that will do good things. As God has created lamb as well as tiger, ignorance and awareness or knowledge, therefore good and evil always exist in this world. That is why we as human beings must be able to control or to stabilize our life because our brain is very easy to construct. At the same time, the tiger is also a symbol of the Creator’s masterly skill, which enabled Him to frame the “fearful symmetry” of the tiger.