Tag Archives: songs of experience

“The Garden of Love” by William Blake

GardenOfLove

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys & desires.

This poem, included in the Songs of Experience, is an attack against the church and ecclesiastic authority. The Garden of Love symbolizes the Garden of Eden, which Blake associates with sexual freedom. Sexuality is not sinful in Blake’s eyes, but a beautiful and natural part of the human experience.

The image of the chapel in the midst of the Garden implies that the church and religious dogma are preventing humanity’s return to the Edenic state. As a result, the statement “Thou shalt not” takes on two meanings. The obvious is “thou shalt not” have sex out of wedlock, which is contradictory to the natural human state as Blake sees it. But also, “thou shalt not” re-enter the Garden of Eden. The church is like the cherubim blocking the return to the Garden.

The other metaphor I want to point out is the image of “tombstones where flowers should be.” The flower symbolizes the woman who has reached sexual maturity. Sadly, in Blake’s society, a woman who gave in to her sexual desires was cast out and shunned, often left desolate on the streets and destined to die at an early age. For a woman back then, sex before marriage too often resulted in death.

Although we have come a long way in accepting our sexuality, there are still cultures that condemn women for engaging in intercourse out of wedlock and we see news stories of women who are murdered for doing so. The big difference is that most of us are horrified by these occurrences, which is a sign that as a society we are slowly moving in the right direction.

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Three Poems by William Blake

PrettyRoseTree

As I continue to work my way through the Songs of Experience, the next one is more of a set, three poems that share the same illuminated page and also share a theme of flowers.

MY PRETTY ROSE-TREE

A flower was offered to me,
Such a flower as May never bore;
But I said I’ve a Pretty Rose-tree,
And I passed the sweet flower o’er.

Then I went to my Pretty Rose-tree,
To tend her by day and by night;
But my Rose turned away with jealousy,
And her thorns were my only delight.

AH! SUN-FLOWER

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

THE LILLY

The modest Rose puts forth a thorn,
The humble Sheep a threatening horn:
While the Lilly white shall in Love delight,
Nor a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright.

There is a lot here to consider. The first question is: Why three poems? After reading through them a couple times, I concluded that the three flowers/poems represent the three stages of a woman’s life: birth, adulthood, and death. This would also be symbolic of the triple goddess: maid, mother, and crone.

In the first poem, the Rose-tree is the mother who gives birth to the baby girl. The red color of the rose symbolizes the blood associated with childbirth. The mother becomes jealous of her daughter, possibly because she mourns the loss of her beauty which she sees reflected in the daughter’s visage, or it could be the attention which the father pays to the young girl. Regardless, the mother is not joyous over the birth of her daughter.

The Sun-flower symbolizes the girl becoming a woman. She has reached her full height and now aspires to reach the sun (or son). She is ready to become a mother herself and renew the cycle.

Lastly, the Lilly is the symbol of death and mourning, hence they are frequently used in funeral wreaths. The whiteness represents the pallor of the skin, yet also hints at a purification of the soul as it transitions to the next realm.

While all this makes sense, there was something about this poem that still bothered me and as I thought about it some more, I figured out what it was. In the first poem, I realized that roses do not grow on trees. The image was all wrong. So why would Blake, skilled poet that he was, use such a poor image, unless he was hinting at something else. That is when an alternate interpretation came to me.

I pictured the Rose-tree as symbolic of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This completely changed my view of the poems. The flower that was originally offered was the promise of life in the Garden of Eden, but humanity instead turned to the Tree of Knowledge and as a result, became subjected to the thorns of life (the curse of experience). Humanity then attempted to reach back to God and did so through Christ, the Sun-flower (or Son-flower). This makes the lines “Arise from their graves and aspire, /Where my Sun-flower wishes to go” make more sense. Finally, the whiteness and purity of the Lilly represents the return to the Edenic state. No more will “a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright” as humanity is returned to the place of divine being.

Even now, I feel that there is more to this triad of poems than I am seeing. But alas, the day is moving on and as much as I would love to sit all day and contemplate this, I must attend to other things. If you see anything else hidden in these poems, please share them in a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Have a beautiful day and keep reading!

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“The Angel” by William Blake

TheAngel_Blake

I dreamt a dream! What can it mean?
And that I was a maiden Queen
Guarded by an Angel mild:
Witless woe was ne’er beguiled!

And I wept both night and day,
And he wiped my tears away;
And I wept both day and night,
And hid from him my heart’s delight.

So he took his wings, and fled;
Then the morn blushed rosy red.
I dried my tears, and armed my fears
With ten thousand shields and spears.

Soon my Angel came again;
I was armed, he came in vain;
For the time of youth was fled,
And grey hairs were on my head.

This is a very complicated poem, although it seems simple on the surface. Upon first reading, I interpreted the poem as an allegory about a young woman who is filled with fear as a child. As a result, the angel who watched over her left and in adulthood, the woman turns to anger and cynicism as a defense. When the angel returns, the woman is old and nearing death, and although she had armed herself against her fears, there was one fear which she could never protect herself from—the fear of dying. While this is a valid interpretation of the poem, I see other symbolism hidden deeper in the text.

The poem describes a dream in which the dreamer envisions himself as the Queen. I see the Queen as symbolic of the unconscious mind, or the Jungian anima. As the dreamer taps into his unconscious mind, he must confront his deepest fears. It almost seems that there is an internal war between his two consciousnesses.

The Queen also appears to be a reference to the triple goddess. She is presented in the three aspects: Maiden, Mother, and Crone. As the Maiden, she weeps from childhood fear. As Mother, we see that the “morn blushed rosy red,” implying that she has reached the stage of maturity when she is menstruating and ready to bear children. Finally, as Crone, her youth has passed and the grey hairs of wisdom now crown her.

The poems in Songs of Innocence and Experience are all more complex than they appear at first. That is the magnificence of these poems. If you notice symbolism that I missed, please share in the comment space. Thanks for visiting!

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“The Fly” by William Blake: Consciousness is Life

Fly

It’s strange how the right poem or song comes to you just as you need it. I attended a funeral service and upon returning home decided to read a poem. I opened my copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience and this one was the next up.

Little Fly
Thy summer’s play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush’d away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink & sing;
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength & breath;
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

The fourth stanza really put life into perspective for me. Thought is life, or in other words, consciousness is life. Only the end of one’s consciousness can mean true death. So the big question is: Does consciousness end when the physical form dies? I say with confidence, no, consciousness continues to live on, and Blake affirms this in the last stanza. He is a happy fly, regardless of whether he is physically alive or dead, because either way, his consciousness continues. The fact that he is spiritually aware is what constitutes happiness.

Blake uses a fly to symbolize that even the smallest of creatures is endowed with consciousness. I would take that a step further and assert that everything that exists has consciousness. I believe that consciousness is inherent in energy, and energy is a part of everything that exists. It therefore stands to reason that everything, from an animal to a grain of sand down to the tiniest subatomic particle, all possess their own form of consciousness. And since science has proven that energy cannot be created or destroyed, it also stands to reason that consciousness can neither be created nor destroyed. It is eternal and knowing that makes me feel happy.

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“Nurse’s Song” by William Blake (from Songs of Experience)

NursesSong_soe

When the voices of children are heard on the green
And whisprings are in the dale,
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.  

Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Your spring and your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.

This poem corresponds to the poem of the same name from the Songs of Innocence (click here to read about that poem). As with the other poem, this one also is set at a transitional period between day to night, symbolizing the transition from childhood to adulthood. But we also see a transition out of spring and accompanying that the idea of winter coming. This symbolic transition conjures a sense of impending death, that the first stages of the cycle has come to a close and the cycles of maturity and death are beginning.

The nurse, who is the voice in this poem, is clearly troubled as she watches over the children. Their play evokes memories of her past which cause her deep anguish.

The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.

I would assert that the nurse gave up her virginity out of wedlock and as a result, suffered for doing so. Possibly, she bore a child herself and had to give the child away to an orphanage or some such institution. As she watches the children and listens to them, she recalls her own innocence and how it led her to make a mistake that carried long-lasting consequences. She knows innately that at least some of the children she cares for will ultimately make the same mistakes she made.

As with so many of Blake’s poems from the Songs of Innocence and Experience, this poem is short but visceral. I know for me, I spent a lot of time looking back at my youth and punishing myself for choices I made, just as the nurse does. Thankfully, I reached a place of acceptance and even gratitude. If it were not for my mistakes, I would never have learned the lessons that brought me to the place I am today, which is a good place.

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“The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake (from Songs of Experience)

ChimneySweeper_2

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe!
Where are thy father & mother? say?
They are both gone up to the church to pray.

Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil’d among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

And because I am happy & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.

This poem corresponds with “The Chimney Sweeper” from the Songs of Innocence. I have to say that although this one is shorter than its corresponding poem, it is much more powerful and visceral in my opinion.

While I find the exploitation of children to be sickening, it is almost beyond comprehension that parents could exploit their children. And what this poem does is it points out the way that people justify their abuse and cruelty. Because the child seems happy, they are able to convince themselves that they are not really doing the child harm. But as we all know, true psychological damage happens below the surface.

The image of “the clothes of death” is really disturbing. I picture blackened rags, covered with soot and dirt, seeping sickness and disease into the pores of the young child. This contrasts starkly with the white snow, but the irony here is that winter is also symbolic of death. I get the sense that the child will die soon and that this will be his last winter.

The last two lines of the poem show yet another level of justification, that of the church. In Blake’s time, church doctrine would have asserted that a child is the property of the parent, and hence the parents could do with the child as they wish. I keep thinking about how, throughout history, religious doctrine has been used to justify social injustice. It continues today. All one needs to do is listen to the arguments against marriage reform.

This is a pretty bleak poem and it’s hard to find any hope in it. The only hope I can find is in the fact that enlightened people like Blake recognize social injustice and have the courage to point it out. It inspires me to point out injustice when I see it around me.

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“The Little Girl Lost” by William Blake

LittleGirlLost

I have to say that this is not one of my favorite poems by Blake. I read it twice today and both times I ended up scratching my head and not really sure how I felt about it. It’s a fairly long poem, so here is a link for those who wish to read it.

Bartleby.com

When I first read it, I felt that the little girl, Lyca, was a symbol for a virginal Eve archetype, wandering in the desert and seeking to return to the garden. But then, after the second reading, I felt maybe that she represents a young woman reaching sexual maturity. Then when I tried to figure out the symbolism connected to the lion, leopard, and tyger, it seemed more ambiguous. Is the lion being protective, like a Christ symbol, or is the lion taking sexual advantage of Lyca, as represented by his licking of her bosom and bringing her into his cave?

I don’t often look up the meaning of poems, since I like to interpret them for myself, but this one caused me to look up an academic paper on the poem. Unfortunately, this only made matters worse. Here is the paper I perused.

http://www.english.uga.edu/wblake/SONGS/35/3435mont.bib.html

As you can see, even in academic circles, interpretations are all over the chart. No one seems to agree on anything regarding this poem (nor the subsequent “The Little Girl Found”). Frankly, I wish I had never looked at this. I feel more confused about this poem now than I did when I first read it.

There is one critique from this paper that I completely agree with, that of Kathleen Raine: “The poems fail, Raine argues, because Blake relies on traditional sources rather than his own imagination.” It is Blake’s imaginative power that has always drawn me to his work. If, as Raine asserts, these poems are Blake’s reworking of other allegories, that would explain why the poem feels rather ambiguous and not cohesive to me.

Despite the fact that I don’t care for this particular poem, I do love Blake’s work. But it stands to reason that when dealing with the poems of someone as prolific as William Blake, not every poem is going to be great. Still, even a not-so-great Blake poem is worth reading, and “The Little Girl Lost” falls into that category for me; not so great, but still worth reading.

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“Holy Thursday” by William Blake: From Songs of Experience

HolyThur-SOE

Blake wrote two versions of “Holy Thursday,” one for the Songs of Innocence and this one for the Songs of Experience. (Click here to read my thoughts on “Holy Thursday” from the Songs of Innocence.) Both poems deal with the issue of poverty and how it affects children, and while both provide social criticism, they do so from very different perspectives.

Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reducd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill’d with thorns
It is eternal winter there.

For where-e’er the sun does shine,
And where-e’er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

In Catholic tradition, Holy Thursday is the Thursday before Easter when Jesus held the last supper. Since the last supper was Jesus’ observance of the Passover Seder, which recounts the Hebrews’ release from the bondage of slavery, there is a dark irony here as Blake incorporates imagery of hunger and subjugation. The church, an institution that is supposed to carry on the traditions and teachings of Christ, instead grudgingly offers meager charity to the poor and starving children with “cold and usurious hand,” all the while viewing themselves as holy and charitable.

For me, the stark difference between this poem and the one from Songs of Innocence is the tone. This is an angry poem, seething with indignation. The poet’s view, no longer tainted by innocence, only sees the bare suffering that poverty inflicts upon poor children. He questions why in a land of abundance we allow those who are less fortunate to suffer, and I personally feel that this question is relevant today. How can we, as a society, tolerate children going without food when we have the resources to alleviate their suffering? It is a question we need to ask ourselves, because there are a lot of children who go to sleep hungry every night.

Blake states strongly: “It is a land of poverty!” This is a powerful statement. It is not material or economic wealth that makes a society prosperous; It is how a society cares for its people that determines whether that society is prosperous or not. A society, just like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link, and allowing poverty to exist only weakens the social fabric.

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“The Clod and the Pebble” by William Blake

ClodAndPebble

Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hells despair.

So sung a little Clod of Clay
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

Love seeketh only self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a Hell in Heavens despite.

I found this poem to be pretty dark and depressing. For a short poem, there is a lot packed in here and it does not paint a nice picture of human nature and society.

The poem is broken into three stanzas. The first stanza expresses the views of the clod and the third the views of the pebble. The second is an outside observation tying the two together. I will go into more detail on each of these perspectives and the associated symbolism.

The first thing to consider is what the clod and the pebble represent. I see several interpretations for these metaphors. On a basic level, the clod is a poor, underprivileged person, one of the masses, and conversely, the pebble is a ruler or someone of the upper class. The poor person is trodden down by the masses of society while the rich person remains firmly planted as life swirls about.

The clod and the pebble also represent basic personality traits, the optimist and the pessimist, respectively. The clod has a positive outlook, is guided by unconditional love, and seeks to make the world a better place by easing the hell associated with human suffering. The pebble has a negative view of love and humanity. The pessimistic outlook casts a shroud of negativity over everything it comes in contact with. Despite being in a heavenly state, the pessimist always sees the negative and by expressing that negativity, “builds a Hell in Heaven.”

Finally, I see a psychological interpretation here that is worth exploring. I could not help seeing the clod as the compassionate aspect of our psyche, while the pebble is like the ego. The clod, like the passionate nature of our mind, is pliant and can be molded by our experiences. That is not the case with the ego-pebble. The pebble is hard and self-contained. The stream of consciousness swirls about the pebble, but the pebble is unmoved and basically oblivious to anything outside itself.

I know that some of my interpretation stems from ideas that came after Blake wrote this, but I like to think that Blake was someone who was able to tap into something greater than himself and to draw inspiration from a divine source. He was clearly centuries ahead of his time.

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“The Little Black Boy” by William Blake: A Little Racist?

LittleBlackBoyContinuing through my copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, the next poem up was “The Little Black Boy” (click here to read the poem online). I have to say, although I love Blake’s works, this one rubbed me the wrong way. I found it to be a little racist.

The poem opens with a black boy comparing himself to a white boy and basically saying that he is “bereav’d of light” because he is black, but that the white boy is angelic.

My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child: 
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.

This immediately turned me off and it was hard for me to shake my distaste as I read the rest of the poem. Even having the black boy say “but O! my soul is white” made it seem like, well, since there is some whiteness in there, the black boy is OK too. I personally find things like that to be offensive.

Now, granted, I have to consider the period in which Blake wrote this, and in defense of Blake, he was obviously trying to convey that in the eyes of the Divine, there is no difference between people based upon skin color. It is the spark of divine spirit within each of us that matters. I agree and I applaud him for expressing that at a time when not so many people were enlightened in that area. But still, it’s hard for me to read this poem today without seeing the racist slant, especially when he asserts that the black boy is really white inside. Ugh!

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