The Romantic Period and the poems of Blake
The Romantic Period
The Romantic Period which lasted 1785 to 1830 was a significant period that made a paramount contribution to the growth of English language and literature. The writers of the Romantic period were influenced by historical events such as the French revolution. Thus the Romantic period was shaped by a multitude of political, social, and economic changes. Many writers of the period were aware of a pervasive intellectual and imaginative climate which some called as Zeitgeist: Spirit of the age. Some poets call themselves as “visionary bards” who had the capability to prognosticate the future. There are six major writers that represent in the concepts of the Romantic period by names: Wordsworth, Keats, Percy Shelly, Byron, Coleridge and Blake. The work of these writes can be categorized under different themes. William Blake was a poet who lashed out against repression in all its many forms. The plight of the oppressed, be it the wretched child condemned to the drudgery of chimney sweeping, the “hapless soldier”, the “youthful harlot or the “robin redbreast in a cage” moved him to a furious advocacy of liberty and the repudiation of reason which was seen as having a tyrannical hold on man preventing him from breaking out of the bonds that held him. Blake’s Chimney sweeper in the songs of experience, “crying ‘weep, weep’ in notes of woe” that his parents oblivious to the poor creature’s suffering “are gone to praise God and his priest and king/ who make a heaven of our misery”. According to the boy’s words it is possible to deduce that it is their false reasoning that blinds them to the chimney sweeper’s plight; “And because I am happy, dance and sing / they think they have done me no injury”. Thus while openly criticizing and rejecting the traditionally accepted figures of authority the poet subtly shows that the tyrannical system is maintained by reason.
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Blake’s “Garden of Love” clearly exhibits how the church has become a harmful to the people while creating disillusionment in the poets mind. The church is openly criticized by Blake for not being truly religious but being a pernicious institution “The Garden “indicates the romantic symbols of joy and innocence. But in the middle of the garden “A chapel” has been built. “The graves” indicate the death of that joy and innocence.
Among Blake’s work the poem which manifests this theme best is “London”. The poet is looking at the “marks of weakness, marks of woe” plainly etched on the faces of the passes by. As the poem develops the causes for the suffering of the Londoners are made clear. Blake accuses the “blackening church” for the sorrow of the innocent chimney sweepers. The “hapless soldier’s” life is frittered away by the rulers and the young women with no means of sustenance are forced into eking out a meager living through the dangerous trade of harlotry. London echoes and resounds with cries of suffering and “marks of weakness, marks of woe” apparent on every face the bard encounters manifest the complete permeation of suffering in London society. However, this is also a society where there not only exists Institutionalized religion and governance but these very authority figures suppress the growth of the society by burdening it with manifold sufferings and turning a deaf ear to the protests of the people. Unfortunately, the troubles of London are not limited to a socio-political sphere. If so they could have been righted by revolution. The greatest enemy the Londoners face is the “mind forged manacles” which prevent them from moving on to a better life.
How does one fight a foe firmly wedged in one’s mind, restraining growth? Blake’s songs of innocence are peopled with children, rural folk and harmless animals like lambs. They are characteristically joyful and innocent enjoying all they see and experience. Their state is one filled with unsophisticated spirituality and optimism. “The Lamb” is written in the form of a child’s monologue with a sheep. The innocence of the child, its simple enjoyment of the beauty of nature and the close communion it has with nature is apparent in the guileless act of speaking to an animal. The child finds “delight” in the sheep’s soft and bright fleece, and its “tender voice”. The child in its innocence poses one of the most profound questions that have been troubling humanity for millennia: that of origin, “Little lamb who made thee? / Dost thou know who made thee?” However, the child answers its own question with a strong simple belief in the Christian teachings, “He is called by thy name / for he calls himself a lamb” Enjoying the simple beauty and safety of un-fallen nature the child finds it possible to connect Jesus and God the creator with the world around itself. The state of innocence inherent in the child coupled with his lack of experience in evil prevents him from questioning the existence of cruel powers as the adult persona of “The Tiger” does, “Did he who make the lamb make thee (tiger)?”
Another poem of Blake’s which manifests the innocent spirituality of children and the ‘noble’ savage is “The Little Black Boy”. Seated under a tree shading them from the tropical sun the mother teaches spirituality and God’s Infinite love to her little Negro son. The boy is taught to regard sun shine as a part of God’s love giving off light and heat to the “flowers and trees and beasts and men”. Thus the boy learns to view all things in nature as a part of God’s kingdom, receiving his love and protection. The colour of the skin is viewed as a temporary covering to be shed when souls have learnt to bear God’s love. The Negro boy sees spiritual love as a force common to all, transcending barriers of color and race. Therefore he is ready to teach this lesson of eternal love and grace to the white boy of whom the poet gives the impression as not being so innocent and worthy of God’s love as the black boy who will shade from the heat till the former is spiritually developed and capable of facing God’s love. Thus drawing on the objects of nature such as the sun, clouds, flora and fauna the little black boy builds up a spiritual message on unconditional love in the afterlife. The antithetical states of innocence and experience, their relative merits and demerits were of deep concern to Blake as portrayed through his songs of innocence and experience. The state of innocence abounds with joy, optimism and love but is sullied by its’ naïve, rose tinted outlook on life. In “The Little Black Boy” the innocent purity of the little boy’s belief in divine love and the promise of a better life in the world hereafter are endearing. With a great deal of tender maternal love his mother teachers him the greater lesson of divine love. The poet draws a touching and interesting picture of the mother and the son engaged in their lessons under a tree. The boy’s belief and practice of love surpasses barriers of race and color as he will look after “the English boy”, shading “him from the heat, till he can bear / to lean in joy upon our father’s knee”. It is a touching and moving picture of humanity and piety but although the little back boy discards racial barriers due to his inexperience, the negative effects of racial discrimination are nevertheless apparent through his words. The little black boy’s attitude towards the “English boy” appears to be rather subservient throughout despite the fact that the former seems fuller of Christian virtues. It is a society where fairness is clearly associated with goodness and darkness with its opposite. This becomes apparent in the lines, “White as an angel is the English child, / But I am black, as if bereaved of light.” These lines are innocently uttered by the boy with no bitterness but the connotations of racial discrimination are present in them. The black boy persisting in his belief that in the after life both black and white will be equal, phrases this view in a manner which once again brings out the effects of the color bar, “And be like him (the white boy) and he will love me”. This gives rise to several questions such as, why cannot the white boy be like the black boy and not vice versa? Is the white boy only capable of loving the God?
Even though Blake was added to the romantic period after poetry his poetry make a huge contribution to the Romantic ideas and views.