William Blake

With the rise of the romantic movement came a new approach to literature and art.  Rather than appeal to the past for models, rules, and subject matter, the goal now was to be original.  Originality in art as a general goal comes into existence now.  Until now, very few had striven for such originality.  Blake mined the past, but he did so to bring material together in a new way, to create his own mythology.  "I must Create a System or be enslaved by another Man's."

The Romantic era is more open to the mythic, mystic, and spiritual than the Enlightenment had been.  The Enlightenment tended toward the rational & natural and away from the supernatural.  Its religion was deism - the idea that God set up the universe & then let it run without further interference.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, had a New Testemant in which he scratched through all the supernatural events.

With the Romantic era, we see literature again dealing with the supernatural.  Romantics might choose from any number of mythological perspectives; what they had in common was the desire to use these various approaches as ways of experiencing life.  This does not mean that the Romantics necessarily thought such myths were objectively real - they were subjectively real.  Such attitudes still exist.  For example, some of the fans of Star Trek or Star Wars see them as providing valid modes of existence.  They don't have to believe that Yoda and Mr. Spock are objectively real to find them subjectively appealing.

Blake's mythology incorporates much from the Christian tradition - both from the Bible and from such writers as Spenser, Milton & Shakespeare.  Blake's mythology starts with the Universal Man in Eden who falls, not away from God but away from himself.  It is a fall into division & alienation.  Below Eden are three lower stages.

  1. Eden.  Perfect union
  2. Beulah.  A happy place of innocence.  No experience of "contraries."  Pastoral setting.
  3. Generation.  The realm of normal human experience, suffering, & clashing contraries.
  4. Ulro.  Hell.  Bleak rationality, tyrrany, static negation, and isolated Selfhood.
Songs of Innocence
Songs of Experience

Blake published Songs of Innocence in 1789.  In 1794 he added poems to the work and published it as Songs of Innocence and of Experience, reflecting his conclusion that it was not possible to live a totally innocent life.

The images above show how Blake intended these poems to be read.  He etched the words & drawings into copper plates, printed them, and hand painted each one.

At first glance, these poems seem to fall into traditional Christian moral dualism (the idea of good vs evil, God vs Satan, etc.).  But both innocence and experience are elements of the Universal Man that have become alienated from each other.  Each needs the other to be complete, which is more like the Taoist yin & yang (female & male.  passive & active. dark & light, etc.) than the Christian God versus Satan.

"The Lamb" (p. 1289) and "The Tyger" (p. 1296)


   Little lamb, who made thee?
   Does thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
   Little lamb, who made thee?
   Does thou know who made thee?

   Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
   Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is callèd by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are callèd by His name.
   Little lamb, God bless thee!
   Little lamb, God bless thee!


Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And, when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

p. 52When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Blake employs the image of the lamb, an ancient symbol of gentleness and humility, contrasting it with the tyger stalking its prey.  The lamb, with "wooly bright" clothing, plays in the pastoral setting of stream, mead, and vales. The stream, mead (meadow, pasture) and vales are images we see in Psalm 23, a likely source for Blake.
Psalm 23
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Blake sanitizes "the valley of the shadow of death" into "Making all the vales rejoice!"  There is no such valley in Beulah, the pastoral world.  With innocence portrayed this way, no wonder Blake considered experience to be necessary.

The second stanza answers the question of the first stanza.  The Lamb who made the lamb is obviously Jesus.  The tradition of seeing Jesus as a lamb goes back to the New Testament, where Jesus becomes the Passover Lamb.  "The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1: 29).  Blake makes Jesus the representative of innocence:

He is meek & he is mild.
He became a little child;
Blake portrays Jesus' goodness as meek, mild, & weak (little children don't have adult strength), almost as goody-goody rather than good.

"We are called by his name."  Children are sometimes called little lambs.  Blake could be referring to the speaker's status as a Christian

"The Tyger" contrasts sharply with "The Lamb."  The lamb is innocent.  To the tyger, it's also delicious.

If we compare the meters of the 2 poems, "The Lamb" follows a regular pattern.  The first two and last two lines of each stanza have 6 syllables (1-2, 9-10, 10-11, 19-20).  The middle six lines in each stanza have 7 syllables per line (3-8, 13-18).  The effect of the meter gives us the feeling of a lamb skipping through the fields.

"The Tyger" follows a less regular pattern.  Most lines have 7 syllables, but some have eight (4, 10, 11, 18, 20, 24), and one line has only 7 syllables (6).  The rhythms and sounds of the poem evoke the predator tiger rather than the innocent lamb.

If the lamb was "wooly bright," the tyger is "burning bright."  It's time in night.  It is active rather than passive, hard rather than soft.  The opening question of each poem is similar - where did you come from?  But the tone of each is different.  What god COULD create the "fearful" (frightening) tyger (4)?  What god DARES do so (24)?

If the lamb was created by the Lamb of God, who created the Tyger?

Are the lamb & tyger manifestations of the same divinity?  Perhaps, but the imagery is as different for the creators as for the creatures.  The tyger has been put together in the underworld and is a creature of the night.  These are the tools of the tyger's creator: These are the tools of the blacksmith.  Thus Blake has modeled the tyger's creator on the ancient god Vulcan/Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the gods who worked inside a volcano making Zeus' thunderbolts.

"The Garden of Love" (p. 1297)


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 and desires.

In some of our reading, we have come across the idea of sex without guilt, remorse, or bad consequences.  Paradise Lost and "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" are 2 examples.
What is it that makes sex fall from this paradisal condition?  According to orthodox theology, it was the fall of Adam & Eve.  Sex is now part of our sinful fallen nature & must be circumsized with rules to keep it from becoming destructive.

For Blake in this poem, it is the prohibition itself that makes sex guilty.  To borrow from a NRA bumper sticker, "When sex is outlawed, only outlaws will have sex."

He goes to the Garden of Love but finds that his earlier Eden has undergone the fall & is now a chapel.

This chapel has "Thou shalt not" written over the door.  It is defined by its prohibitions, especially the one against adultery.

Priests busily bind his "joys & desires" with "briars."  They turn something fun into something painful. What is in the churchyard?  A cemetary. Graves (death) have replaced the flowers (life) that were once here.

"Infant Joy" (p. 1299) and "Infant Sorrow" (p. 1299)


‘I have no name;
I am but two days old.’
What shall I call thee?
‘I happy am,
Joy is my name.’
Sweet joy befall thee!

Pretty joy!
Sweet joy, but two days old.
Sweet joy I call thee:
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while;
Sweet joy befall thee!


My mother groaned, my father wept:
Into the dangerous world I leapt,
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

Struggling in my father’s hands,
Striving against my swaddling bands,
Bound and weary, I thought best
To sulk upon my mother’s breast.

Blake contrasts innocence in the newborn with experience.  Even when we are first born, we bear the marks of alienation and contraries.

In the first poem, the infant gives itself the name Joy.  The smiling baby inspires the adult to sing.  The joy spreads.

In the second poem, the sorrow also spreads.  The baby is born with its mother groaning from the birth-pangs and with the father weeping.  The baby is "piping loud; / Like a fiend hid in a cloud."  Unhappy babies can cry and disrupt those around them.  This baby struggles against its father, against its swadling clothes, and sulks upon its mother's breast.  Even food doesn't make it happy.  Could this be the same infant?

"To Tirzah" (p. 1300)


Whate’er is born of mortal birth
Must be consumèd with the earth,
To rise from generation free:
Then what have I to do with thee?

The sexes sprung from shame and pride,
Blowed in the morn, in evening died;
But mercy changed death into sleep;
The sexes rose to work and weep.

Thou, mother of my mortal part,
With cruelty didst mould my heart,
And with false self-deceiving tears
Didst blind my nostrils, eyes, and ears,

Didst close my tongue in senseless clay,
And me to mortal life betray.
The death of Jesus set me free:
Then what have I to do with thee?

Tirzah was the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, Jerusalem of the Southern Kingdom.  Blake uses Jerusalem to symbolize spiritual generation & immortality, Tirzah to symbolize material generation & mortality.

Blake treats life in the body as difficult, mortal, and sorrowful.  Jesus died to release us from this life, from which Blake accordingly turns away.  There is an ancient idea that the body is a prison for the soul that Blake seems to follow here.

"The Divine Image" (p. 1291)
The Human Abstract" (p. 1298) 
"A Divine Image" (p. 1299)


To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
   All pray in their distress,
   And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
   Is God our Father dear;
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
   Is man, His child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart;
   Pity, a human face;
And Love, the human form divine:
   And Peace the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
   That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine:
   Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

p. 18And all must love the human form,
   In heathen, Turk, or Jew.
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell,
   There God is dwelling too.


Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor,
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.

And mutual fear brings Peace,
Till the selfish loves increase;
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears;
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head,
And the caterpillar and fly
Feed on the Mystery.

p. 60And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat,
And the raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.

The gods of the earth and sea
Sought through nature to find this tree,
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the human Brain.


Cruelty has a human heart,
   And Jealousy a human face;
Terror the human form divine,
   And Secrecy the human dress.

The human dress is forgèd iron,
   The human form a fiery forge,
The human face a furnace sealed,
   The human heart its hungry gorge.

"The Human Abstract" shows that the innocent, "good" human emotions and actions have roots in the world of experience.  We would not need pity if there were no poor, etc.  Peace comes from mutual fear (As in the Cold War, where their atom bombs kept us from launching ours & vice versa).  God may dwell in us, but so does Deceit.

"A Divine Image" contrasts with "The Divine Image" point by point.
  "The Divine" "A Divine": Traits "A Divine": Source
Heart mercy cruelty hungry Gorge
Face pity jealousy Furnace seal'd
Dress peace secrecy forged iron
Human form love terror fiery Forge