So the Angel said: “Thy phantasy has imposed upon me & thou oughtest to be ashamed”
In William Blake’s past there is a close relationship with the Moravian religion that seems to reveal itself, unsurprisingly, in his work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In the work, Blake chooses to depict a scene of utter grotesqueness that reveals to his companion, an angel, the truth of his own religion—that it is constructed on the bones of reason. Blake takes a satirical aim at the Moravian religion by depicting the rotting corpses—a fleshly representation of the Moravian church central to its teachings—as intolerable. He places his satire on an equal level as that of Swedenborgian teachings in his more blatant mockery of the writer’s “new truth” (“A Memorable Fancy” MoH&H. 22. 1; 79). It seems that Blake is trying to communicate his distaste for Church teachings that have been institutionalized in his condescension of them—as evidenced by the tension between he, the angel, and the devil. Blake ultimately reveals through his satire that he wishes to not favor any particular school of thought, but instead he chooses to favor an altered perception beyond a limited scope created by systematized barriers of organized religion.
Within the mind’s frame, the contrary systems of thought go to war. Each image holds the mind’s space forcing one to watch, follow it, and succumb it its desires and this activity hinders the divine energy from being made apparent. When one is sufficiently engaged in the stories repeatedly told by the mind, the infinite, as Blake would say, cannot be seen in all things and since “the Poetic Genius is the true Man” (Pg, 5), Blake wrote much about its experience as well as condemning what he believed deflated it. This essay attempts to process the differing ways Blake saw Poetic Genius, or the divine energy interrupted. To do this, first I demonstrate, in Blake’s terms, that Man is in fact constructed from the Poetic Genius and therefore, there must be an internal rather than external interruption blocking the manifestation of Poetic Genius. Next, I illustrate how Songs of Innocence and Experience depict this energy stoppage, or how the filled mind keeps out the Poetic Genius. Indicated by his poetry, Blake was obsessed with the various ways human’s hinder access to the Poetic Genius because he wanted to unlock the prophet in everyone.
Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of interpreting William Blake’s work is the application of his precepts and ideals to the real world we inhabit. Frequently his abstract, allegorical visions seem impossible to work out in reality and can therefore appear irrelevant. For example, his calls for political, economic, religious, and societal revolution were so radical that they could not be openly advocated in Blake’s allegorical work or realized in his own life. In Songs of Innocence, Blake’s poem “The Chimney Sweeper,” with its complement of the same title in Songs of Experience, indicts the exploitation of children at the hands of supposedly moral adults. These two poems emerge as distinct from their fellows because they hone in on particular subjects and make clear that the depicted children’s suffering is at the hands of those the children personally trusted, rather than impersonal institutions. What is not as easy to discern, however, is what sort of solution Blake proposes. Clearly Blake is advocating a social revolution of some sort, one that preserves the innocence of the victimized children he depicts. But what does the execution of that vision practically look like, for his contemporary readers and for us? The overarching message of the Songs emphasizes the importance of instruction of children by adults, particularly their parents. But rather than the strict codes of morality that lead to the corruption Blake describes, Blake advocates an individual revolution of the mind to bring about local change and the passing-on of the ideals his art represents.
“Love, indeed, has its priests in the poets.”
- Søren Kierkegaard
The generative power of the system of contraries developed in William Blake’s work flows from a complex philosophical lineage. While it may seem counterintuitive to conceive how contradictory forces could act together productively, this very idea inundates Western thought. Hegel understood history as a dialectical development of man’s spirit, a progression “of the consciousness of Freedom”, that propels itself through time by the transformation of theses to antitheses, antitheses to the new theses ad infinitum.1 Similarly, Friedrich Nietzsche believed “that the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollinian and Dionysian duality,” characterized by the opposing forces of optimism and pessimism.2 Indeed, Blake stands in good company when he uses contraries to approach the radical ideals buried in the code of contradictions concealed in his work. To better understand how Blake intends to “transcend” the paradoxical coexistence of contraries, one might turn to yet another philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, and his unique conception of the self laid out in Sickness Unto Death, to grasp the generative power of contradictions seen in such pieces as The Songs of Innocence and Experience. There, Blake creates and destroys an idyllic world of blissful ignorance through contradictory passages intended to bring the reader to a reasonable and balanced comportment to the world. A close reading of the fundamental structure of the self proposed in Sickness helps to clarify how this message comes about in the juxtaposition of the first and second half of Songs.
In William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” innocence is not ignorance. Rather, Blake’s songs suggest that innocence is a system of institutionalized knowledge taught to children to help them cope with the miseries of experience. Blake juxtaposes a set of songs about early childhood education, the songs of innocence, with songs about the miseries of human experience, the songs of experience, in order to emphasize the cause-effect nature of this education; the teachings of childhood education define and perpetuate the corrupt social and political systems which make experience so miserable. In “The Little Black Boy,” a young black child uses the religious stories told to him by his mother to rationalize his existence as an inferior being in a racist world. The black boy’s explanation of his identity highlights the problematic nature of his mother’s teachings; the black boy unquestioningly accepts his role as a servant to white men as part of God’s unique plan. According to this plan, which the boy repeats to the English boy at the end of the song, the binaries of black and white that define social roles on Earth will be dissolved in heaven. Thus, racial disparities on Earth are resolved through a promise of equality in heaven. Ironically, the black boy’s repetition of his mother’s teachings perpetuates the very belief system that enchains him. The black boy is enslaved by his corrupt education.
Recognizing the condition of enslavement to be unbounded by physical fetters, William Blake creates characters imbued in systemic institutions, first dictated by race in “The Little Black Boy,” then by gender roles in “Visions of the Daughters of Albion.” Because his characters never successfully defy social expectations, they remain trapped in their oppressive conditions, repetitive existences exemplified by the conclusion, “Thus every morning wails Oothoon, but Theotormon sits/ Upon the margind ocean conversing with shadows dire” (“Visions of the Daughters of Albion” 11/8. 11-12. 65). This stagnation, however, allows readers to become cognizant of slavery’s limitations, freeing them from the system’s indoctrination and highlighting the need for social and political reform. Although Blake would surely balk at the idea of a methodology driving his work, if one existed, this technique would epitomize it: by narrating realistic experiences of figures steeped in slavery, Blake elicits a contrary response from his readers by awakening their minds to the inherent flaws of this same dull round of oppression and inequality.
Rifle through Songs of Innocence and you’ll discern both a literary and artistic analog in the well-known children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. Though written some tens of years apart, the former in 1785 and the latter in 1865, one encounters undeniable parallels in both works. These similarities vary from the more obvious, such as each texts’ accompaniment by engraved fascimiles or illustrations—the inclusion of which is necessary in making the work comprehensible and less cryptic—to the more complex, entering the commentative realm. Carroll, based on his incorporation of the imaginative, particular thematic elements, and critical analysis and allegory, is unarguably a contemporary of William Blake and, by Blakean definition, an exhibitor of Poetic Genius. Carroll evidently turned to Blake as a source of inspiration and possibly even reinforcement as he embarked on a seemingly controversial and unorthodox literary and artistic journey, weaving the vividly eccentric, or at least seemingly so, account of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.